Friday, October 9, 2015

Slavery and Secularism

I take a generally negative view of newspaper opinion pieces. My complaint holds for almost any popular publication, but a 700-word op-ed provides just enough space to make an argument and a convenient excuse to ignore serious criticisms of your viewpoint. To the informed reader, this just annoying, an unfortunate side effect of how we consume news in the modern world. But the larger problem lies in the fact that most readers probably aren't in a position to analyze the claims being put forward.

That leads us to a piece by Hector Avalos published in the Ames Tribune last week [November 2011], exonerating secularism of its crimes and heaping all kinds of scorn on religious belief for the violence it has caused, and with very shoddy evidence.

Citing the Civil War, World Wars I and II as examples, a reader wrote to the editor arguing that "secular ideologies have caused more harm to humanity than religious ideologies." And Avalos, the skeptic and defender of truth that he is, couldn't let that stand.

There's an argument to be made that the letter writer was being a little overzealous in his accusations against secularism for the harm it's done, but Avalos didn't go that route. He decided to return the favor and ignore inconvenient facts in order to keep his disdain for religion intact.

"The American Civil War was fought, in part, on the basis of biblical interpretation about slavery." Perhaps. But there's more to the story. The arguments fished out of the Bible to justify slavery were gross misinterpretations of the text; they were concocted because the southern states needed to vindicate slavery, not because the practice is sanctioned anywhere in the Bible. It's long been pointed out by Christian apologists that slavery as it was practiced during the Civil War is not the same as that mentioned in the Old Testament. The latter could more accurately be called indentured servitude, which was voluntary.

Furthermore, there were Christian abolitionists writing during and after the Civil War who attacked the supposedly biblical basis for slavery. It's difficult to argue that the Bible condones slavery when some of its most vociferous critics were believers. How curious that Avalos left this out his article.

"In the case of World War II, José M. Sanchez, a Catholic historian, tells us that regardless of Pope Pius XII’s alleged complicity in the Nazi holocaust: 'There is little question that the Holocaust had its origin in the centuries-long hostility felt by Christians against Jews' (“Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy,” The Catholic University of America Press, 2002, p. 70)."

If you pick up any scholarly history of Nazi Germany, it will be immediately obvious how foolish an argument this is. The truth is that as a matter of policy, the Nazis hated Christianity. They saw religion as an obstacle to overcome, because religion requires its adherents to dedicate themselves to something greater than a government. And that's trouble if you're a totalitarian regime.

In reality, the churches in Germany offered some of the first resistance after the Nazis took control of the country. Historian Joachim Fest reports in his book Plotting Hitler's Death that the Nazis openly attacked the churches too soon, and left the churches a degree of freedom after realizing that they wouldn't roll over. As Fest explains, "...the churches provided a forum in which individuals could distance themselves from the regime" and the resistance was so intense that "...Hitler decided to postpone a showdown until after the war." (p 32)

But if Avalos is correct, I'd love to know why the Nazis persecuted Christians so heavily, attempting to nationalize the Protestant church and make its doctrines more congenial with Nazism. As historian Richard J Evans reports in The Third Reich in Power, "Hitler seems to have had the ambition of converting [the church] into a new kind of national church, purveying the new racial and nationalist doctrines of the regime..." (p 223)

The result of this effort was a split in the Protestant church; The German Christians fell in line behind the Nazis and the Confessing Church held out its resistance, though in the face of much persecution. Evans says that their pastors were banned from preaching and denied  their salaries; Protestant publishing houses were seized, theology students were forced to join Nazi organizations, and by 1937, 700 pastors were imprisoned, some eventually murdered. (p 230)

My point, as with slavery, is not that Christians were perfectly innocent in all these affairs, but that the history is far more complex. It simply is not acceptable to lay Nazism at the feet of Christianity the way Avalos suggests we should.

"Similarly, Emperor Hirohito, who ruled Japan at the time of World War II, was seen as a god. The surrender of Japan came when president Harry S. Truman, a Baptist Christian, targeted and killed hundreds of thousands of men, women and children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki."
Apparently you can fault religion for the atomic bomb with anecdotes about two individuals. "The emperor was seen as a god! All religious people believe in god! See, World War II was religion's fault!" Be serious. The point about Truman is even more ridiculous. Avalos is taking a few facts in isolation, stripped of any historical context, and stringing them together to make his argument. To say that Truman's religious beliefs were the primary factor in the decision to drop the bomb on Japan is a crude oversimplification of a very complicated historical question.

But if you want to see just how vapid this argument is, try blaming the secular dictators of the last century on atheism, then watch its apologists, people like Avalos, begin rapidly backpedaling. Lenin's crimes (and those of his successors) were only political in nature, Richard Dawkins claimed in 2012, not an expression of his explicit atheism—though Lenin himself seemed to disagree. "Religion is one of the forms of spiritual oppression which everywhere weighs down heavily upon the masses," he  wrote in 1905, about a decade before the Soviet Union began executing Russian Orthodox priests by the hundreds, and ultimately many millions of dissidents. The double standard is clear. Religious leaders commit violence because of their beliefs; secular dictators slaughter innocent people independent of their atheism.

"The main ethical criticism of religious wars is that they always trade real human lives for resources or entities (e.g., paradise, “holy land,” God’s will) that can never be verified to exist. On the other hand, secular wars, even if not always justified, often are fought over scarcities and threats (e.g., oil, water, a physical personal attack) that can at least be verified to exist."

A miserable ending to a miserable screed. What are often labeled religious conflicts actually fit comfortably into what Avalos calls "secular wars." It's true that enemies in a war are often divided along religious lines, but, as Dinesh D' Souza points out in What's So Great About Christianity?, equally important is what they're fighting over - usually, land, self-government, oil, or something else very non-religious, a point backed up by serious scholarship should you doubt D'Souza's reliability.

Unsurprisingly, then, Avalos' argument is painfully unconvincing. A little common sense and a brief survey of the relevant research are all we need to defuse this popular but ultimately unconvincing counter-apologetic.
-- Will Lawson