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.


Smart people can be religious too, can’t they?

Being charitable to the positions, beliefs, and arguments of others is a hallmark of thorough thinking, and it is a good marker to determine the quality of online content. Blogs and comments are often dominated by clear but one-sided opinions on a particular subject, which allows them to gain a quick following by confirming the opinions of their own group. If one’s goal is to start and maintain a community of like-minded people for the benefits a feeling of belonging provides, this is effective. Usually, however, such blogs are constructed as if intending to speak to those on the other side of the fence, in which case their manner of argument is poor and ineffective, because, in the language of Stephen Covey, they seek first to be understood before they understand.

I cringe at these types of arguments, regardless of what side of the fence they land, because they pretend to be something they are not. Being charitable doesn’t mean not making claims of value or judgement; it simply means a considered investigation of the side you are arguing against, putting it in the best possible light. Unfortunately, academic training seems to make one prone to the opposite problem, being so charitable that one is doing little other than summarizing the state of affairs. This may be helpful if the greater public is unaware of a factor that may change the nature of a discourse, and often it functions as a plea for moderation against the more one-sided folks. Only rarely, at least in my field, do scholars make challenging claims. It’s simply the way we were raised.

I would like to think that people who study religion have to be more charitable than most, because they are often dealing with the impact of beliefs and actions that are self-founding; in other words, they cannot be verified or justified by outside reasoning. I have come to wonder, though, whether touting the pluralism of religious scholarship is not simply bad faith. Perhaps scholars use arguments against bias to avoid upsetting their audience, or even more critically, to avoid upsetting themselves. I know this was true in my case. I survived as a Christian for at least two years only by maintaining a separation between my religious life and my academic life, even though the latter deals almost exclusively with the religion I practiced. It eventually became an untenable separation for me, the exact reasons for which remain a mystery, especially as many others are able to operate in both worlds, the religious and the academic.

Indeed, I have had numerous conversations with friends who are believers about the fact that there are many intelligent people, many intelligent scholars even, who hold very strong religious beliefs. It may seem silly even to have that conversation, but the nature of the majority of the discourse, in which atheists think Christians are stupid, or at least Christians think atheists think they are stupid, and Christians think atheists are all the devil’s servants destined for hell, or at least atheists think Christians think they are, makes it a practically inevitable conversation. In addition, because I quit religion while in higher education, friends often assume I think that my current position is the “smarter” one.

Many different names come up in the conversation about smart Christians, with C. S. Lewis always high on the list. I’ll return to him another time, but I came across another brief argument by a Christian academic that reinforces my contention that one cannot justify religious belief from a non-theological scholarly methodology. Gary Cutting, a philosopher from Notre Dame, wrote an opinion piece “On Being Catholic” in the New York Times, where he says, “I try to articulate a position that I expect many fellow Catholics will find congenial and that non-Catholics (even those who reject all religion) may recognize as an intellectually respectable stance.” What follows is part personal testimony and part justification of a liberal approach to an orthodox tradition.

Cutting argues, as liberal Christians often do, that while the church may not provide fundamental truths, it is a helpful tool for understanding the human condition. While he doesn’t go into detail here, the “tools” that other Christians cite are primarily explanatory ones, such as man having a sinful nature, which then explains why people do bad things, reinforcing the idea that if there were only more Christians, there would be less evil in the world. Cutting also aligns with other liberal Christians in highlighting the ethic of love as a “powerful force for good” and the lens through which Biblical teachings should be interpreted. He anticipates the counterargument that he is promoting a watered-down version of the faith by contending that the Catholicism itself makes room for such diversity of belief.

None of this is a clear justification of his belief as a Catholic or a reconciliation with his life as an academic. In the end, he offers two reasons why not to abandon the flawed institution of the Catholic Church. First, the Catholic tradition is, as he says, “the only place I feel at home. Simply to renounce it would be…to deny part of my moral core.” This is where the heart of Cutting’s argument lies. He can’t give up religion because it would be giving up part of himself. I understand his argument and have felt that way myself, but it is not the intellectually respectable stance he claimed it would be. It is rather a conversation-stopper, an argument that maintains a foundational ground without question out of (a very real) fear.

By holding both that the church is flawed and yet that its ideals are right or that its heart is in the right place, Cutting keeps those flaws at a distance from himself. Yet he is left with two choices. One would be to articulate more clearly what are those beliefs that constitute his moral core and why exactly they are best served in Christianity. If simply because that is the tradition he grew up in, fine, but that is not the reasonable argument he is making. The other option would be to seriously question whether the flaws in the Church are also deeply embedded in his moral core as well. The change in my life, from a place where I felt like Cutting to where I am now, was facilitated by the realization that my moral worldview was not, in practice, supported by the theological underpinnings I had been told it was. It was then that I realized my moral core was tied more to the particularities of my social world—which did include Christianity— and my dispositions rather than a divine Creator.

Cutting’s second reason not to abandon his belief is contingent upon the first. He doesn’t want to abandon his faith to the conservatives. Again, I recognize the position, and it is one I held for a period of time. The lines are not as clear here. I am not willing to say, as many nonreligious folks do, that all religion does more harm than good. So I understand the sentiment of wanting to reclaim a rich tradition from seeming perversions. But it could also be that the unwillingness of “liberal” religious folks to abandon their tradition helps maintain the space that allows conservative and extreme factions to enact their violence against others who think differently. Think for a moment what would happen if all liberal Christians abandoned their Christianity for another system that was centered around love and morality, but without the theological underpinnings? I know it’s far-fetched, but where would that leave conservative factions? Without enough support to survive.

Though Cutting claims Christianity is not the only way to truth, I don’t see him taking the route I suggested. But that means that he and others like him, have a lot more work to do than making generalizations about “love” and “my belief,” which excludes nearly all of what religious traditions have historically been about. His argument is not justifiable in the manner he proposed it in. Rather, it is evasive precisely where it needs to be specific. It takes for granted both the theological propositions and the social conditions required for him to profess such a faith. I don’t think it is necessarily impossible to make a reasoned argument that takes these factors into serious account, but I have yet to see one.


Even the Bravest…

1888 was Friedrich Nietzsche’s last year as a writer, and was his most productive. He suffered a mental breakdown on January 3, 1889, while attempting to stop a man who was beating his horse. He is said to have collapsed with his arms around the horse’s neck and he never returned to his former self, though he lived on for another decade.

If I had to choose one source that precipitated my departure from religion more than any other, it would be the writings of Nietzsche. I am not alone; many throughout the last century have found Nietzsche as the catalyst for their departure from traditional forms of religion. (It is also important to note that many, past and present, have used Nietzsche to attempt to reform Christianity from within. Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen recently published an intriguing book that documents the history of Nietzsche reception in America.) He is a writer I have returned to repeatedly for the simplicity with which he expresses the contingency of modern belief, specifically the problems of Christianity’s role in European culture. If before I thought of Christianity as a largely exclusive sphere within Western culture, it was Nietzsche’s writing that exposed the proliferation of Christian ideology and morality far beyond its bounds into political and cultural spheres where Christians and secularists misrecognize it.

Nietzsche-munchNietzsche wrote Twilight of the Idols in this last year, just before the more well-known Antichrist. The former, relatively short work is written in the short aphoristic style for which he is famous. The second aphorism in the text has become a motto of sorts for me: “Even the most courageous among us only rarely has the courage to face what he already knows.” The short statement expresses how reluctant we are to challenge the “truths” that we hold closely, even when part of us “knows” that they are contingent, based only on our own particular context and not on any universal truth. As Nietzsche expressed elsewhere, there is only a perspective “knowing,” so the “already know[ing]” he talks about is not another universal, but instead recognizing the limitations of ourcontingent knowledge

I’ve had this quote listed as the subtitle of this blog, but the reason I’m bringing it up now is that I am retitling my blog “Even the Bravest…,” and wanted to (briefly) explain why. The decision is largely a political one, the ramifications of which I will be able to explain in much greater detail in the coming months. In short, though, although I thoroughly enjoy the title “Exiting Christianity,” and although it expresses the continuing nature of my own experience studying the tradition that I grew up in, it may give the wrong impression to casual readers. My goal is not to deride all that is associated with the Christian tradition; as I’ve mentioned before, I remain intrigued by the history of Christianity and the extent of its effect on present culture

There exists a certain amount of duplicity in the non-sectarian study of religion. The constitution of Religious Studies as a field is dependent on an unbiased approach. Religious Studies is not theology, in other words, because it does not assume the truth of any religious practice or belief. In its purest forms, it is supposed merely to document and compare religious traditions. People do not usually study religion, however, as one studies the objects in a museum. In my experience many people involved in the study of religion hold particular stancesregarding the traditions they study, whether for or against them, yet they separate those from their scholarship. While this increases the potential reach of their work, it is what we might call withholding information relevant to the case. The “objectivity” inherent to scholarship is uniquely problematic to the field of religion because religion assumes complete adherence, whereas fields such as history or psychology do not. For me, the discord between personal and professional approaches to Christianity was untenable, forcing an eventual reckoning.

All that is to say that I want to be as forthright as possible in my approach to religion, but I also want people to interrogate religion more deeply than they have, particularly those who have grown up in the Christian tradition. To prevent people from making a hasty dismissal of my assessments and critiques from the title of my blog alone, I’ll make it slightly more difficult to nail me down (but not too much).

In short, nothing much has changed. However, I’ll have more to say about Nietzsche in the future.