A Rare, Fellow Latino Atheist

Hector Avalos

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Dr. Hector Avalos has an interesting story: from evangelist preacher to atheist professor of biblical studies. Whatever you believe, Avalos’s work presents an opportunity for open and honest discussion over a unique perspective.

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4 comments on “A Rare, Fellow Latino Atheist

  1. Maria
    November 20, 2010 at 6:56 pm #

    Muy interesante! Some would say his lifelong disease pushed him away from God but it seems to me that it has helped him focus on what is truly meaningful to him.

  2. JT
    November 27, 2010 at 1:57 am #

    What I like most about the interview is his authentic honesty and apparent humility. Two statements stood out to me:

    “Most adults, up until recently, usually end up in the religion they were raised in. It’s not because they came to that religion through a long period of study or research, but they were just raised that way. To me that was not satisfactory. I wanted to know whether it was true or not.”

    My thought is that he is right-on in all respects, particularly that this has been the case up until recently. Lately, however, the free-for-all of ideas in our society allow us to make far more informed decisions about religion. In other words, Avalos’ experience of changing/abandoning faith is quickly becoming the new status quo, which I believe is a great thing.

    However, we’re also told:

    Avalos said he also had a problem with the ethics of the Bible, including the endorsement of genocide, slavery and killing of children. He also could not find any evidence that the Bible was factual.

    “What I thought were very well-documented arguments with sources from their time turned out to have no sources,” Avalos said. “I thought there would be plenty of evidence for the life and doings of Jesus from his time. There are actually no documents from the time of Jesus about him.”

    These are two distinct points of contention often found in atheist/agnostic arguments against Christianity. The first, the genocide argument, is largely emotional and I suggest ultimately irrelevant for determining the truth or error of faith in Jesus.

    Personally, I think there are consistent and plausible reasons for the stories of “genocide” in the Old Testament, but I don’t think they determine whether or not Jesus was God-in-the-flesh. Avalos’ reaction to them is most likely because he looks through the lens of post-Enlightenment moral theory, which he imposes on and uses to pass judgement on the ancient Hebrews and their stories, confident Kant, Hume, Mill, et al know far more than a bunch of nomadic shepherds from thousands of years ago. As a Harvard PhD., no doubt he knows this, and chooses to level the accusation anyway.

    The bottom line is that if Jesus claim to be God was predicated on whether or not he authorized “genocide” as YHWH in the Old Testament, then Avalos’ (and other atheists’) complaint would make sense. As it stands, Jesus made no reference to “genocide” in laying out his claims. Refutation ought to be offered at the point of the claim, not by scoring easy points among idealistic college students by raising a tangential issue that is emotionally upsetting to those who believe in Western Post-Enlightenment moralism as an article of faith. (Phew!)

    By way of analogy, Mormonism ought to be addressed at the point of its claim: that Joseph Smith received revelation from God via the angel Moroni on golden discs which he then compiled in the Book of Mormon. It should not be addressed on the issue of polygamy, which is extraneous and tangential to the central claim.

    His second point, which is historical/archaeological, is far more significant, since the entire Christian claim rests on the alleged historical event of Jesus’ resurrection. But again, Avalos’ statement is more opinion than “fact.” He defines evidence narrowly as “documents,” choosing to leave out sociological evidence (undoubtedly because sociology is not “hard science”). In these terms, of course, he’s correct: a first century Jewish peasant and his few hundred fisherman-followers were not actively being documented by the wider literary world.

    Within a generation, however, the “documentation” explodes and has been preserved in far greater quantities and from far earlier times than any other leader in antiquity, including Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, etc. Fragments of the Gospels have been found in Egypt from the early 100s. We have no problem accepting the claims for the historicity of Caesar and Alexander, so to be consistent we should accept the historicity of Jesus as well.

    Whether or not Avalos finds Jesus’ claims to be God-incarnate with all its attendant corollaries plausible is one thing, but criticism of Old Testament “genocide” and citing a lack of historical “evidence” for Jesus of Nazareth clouds the real questions at hand and redirects criticism from the central claim: that Jesus proved his divinity by resurrecting from the dead.

    • Louis
      November 27, 2010 at 3:26 pm #

      JT,

      Thanks as always for taking the time to read and opine. I’m sure you would agree that Avalos’s brief interview was by no means an appropriate venue for him to provide detailed arguments or support for his various positions. I would encourage you to read his books and articles to get a fuller picture of his positions. That said, there are a couple points we can explore here.

      You wrote:

      The bottom line is that if Jesus claim to be God was predicated on whether or not he authorized “genocide” as YHWH in the Old Testament, then Avalos’ (and other atheists’) complaint would make sense. As it stands, Jesus made no reference to “genocide” in laying out his claims.Refutation ought to be offered at the point of the claim, not by scoring easy points among idealistic college students by raising a tangential issue that is emotionally upsetting to those who believe in Western Post-Enlightenment moralism as an article of faith.

      If the Canaanite genocides are a “tangential” issue to Christianity then why have Evangelicals spilled oceans of ink in various attempts to explain and defend them? (See the late Ken Pulliam’s 14-part series Grasping at Straws, which documents many of the most well-known attempts.) Exploring the question: “How are the Canaanite genocides in keeping with the character of the Christian God?” is far from tangential to the discussion of the truth of Christianity, especially if one maintains the doctrines of Biblical inerrancy, the Trinity, etc. as Evangelicals do. You seem to be driving a wedge between Yahweh and Jesus, between the Gospels and the rest of the Bible, that I don’t believe you truly intend.

      You also wrote with respect to Avalos’s position on the historicity of Jesus:

      His second point, which is historical/archaeological, is far more significant, since the entire Christian claim rests on the alleged historical event of Jesus’ resurrection. But again, Avalos’ statement is more opinion than “fact.” He defines evidence narrowly as “documents,” choosing to leave out sociological evidence (undoubtedly because sociology is not “hard science”).

      Again, it’s a little unreasonable to critique Avalos here without even knowing the basis of his claims, which he provides elsewhere in his articles and books. I don’t think we can fault Avalos for not going into detail in such a brief interview.

      Lastly, you said:

      We have no problem accepting the claims for the historicity of Caesar and Alexander, so to be consistent we should accept the historicity of Jesus as well.

      The claims surrounding Jesus in the Gospels are extraordinary in nature, and extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. I agree with Avalos and many other scholars that the evidence in support of the extraordinary claims about Jesus is not anywhere near extraordinary. I don’t want to start a long debate at this time on this topic, but I would point you and others to this short video by New Testamant scholar (and Wheaton College graduate) Dr. Bart Ehrman, which speaks to some of the basic arguments of scholars who doubt the extraordinary claims of the Gospels.

  3. JT
    November 27, 2010 at 5:36 pm #

    Lou,

    You’re right – I didn’t intend for my response to be taken as directed only at Avalos, but at the position he represents in general.

    You say:

    Exploring the question: “How are the Canaanite genocides in keeping with the character of the Christian God?” is far from tangential to the discussion of the truth of Christianity, especially if one maintains the doctrines of Biblical inerrancy, the Trinity, etc. as Evangelicals do. You seem to be driving a wedge between Yahweh and Jesus, between the Gospels and the rest of the Bible, that I don’t believe you truly intend.

    I’m not trying to drive a wedge between Yahweh and Jesus, but between the genocide-question and Jesus. You seem to have missed my point: that the claims of Jesus ought to be addressed directly, rather than through emotionally charged questions related to stories of “genocide.”

    The “character of the Christian God” is not the central point of the Christian claim. Jesus did not call upon humanity to believe in his deity because he fulfilled what we imagine God to be like. This is the flaw I see in the genocide argument: it places humanity in the subjective position of passing judgment on the “character of God.” The Christian idea of God is not one whom humanity is invited to pass judgment on, so invoking arguments about the “character of God” automatically drives the discussion away from Jesus’ claims and into post-Enlightenment moralism.

    The central claim is that Jesus rose from the dead and thereby proved his divinity. Whether or not my cultural values regarding “genocide” are offended by the stories about God is tangential to whether or not God exists and was revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. This is what needs to be engaged with if one is to form an honest assessment of Christianity’s claims.

    Your contention that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence is worthy of a future post. I believe this is a subjective stance to take, whether done so intentionally or unintentionally, so as to undermine Christianity’s supposed divine origins. Ehrman et al are, like Avalos, once again being subjective in determining what to admit as “evidence” in support of Jesus’ claims. They do not offer a level playing field but instead privilege modernist assumptions over premodern (and postmodern) ones.

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