Review of Fighting Words
Review: Hector Avalos. 2005. Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence. Amherst, NY: Promethus Books. 444 pp.
The fact of religiously inspired violence is hardly news to most readers of this review. But, as anthropologist and secular humanist Hector Avalos promises, “[t]his book is not simply another book about religion and violence” (17). Thankfully, Fighting Words adds organization, scholarly research, and coherent theory to the smoke and smolder of other recently published but far less convincing works on this critical and timely topic, other works that all too often amount to little more than opportunistic rants.
After outlining the history of various philosophies of violence generally and of religious aggression more specifically, Avalos introduces his readers to “scarce resource theory,” a relatively simple yet sensible explanation of the genesis of violence. Certainly, other writers have attributed hostility to competition over scarce resources, but violent competition in the religious context, Avalos argues, is markedly more tragic and immoral because the alleged existence of such resources is ultimately unverifiable and, according to empirical standards, not scarce at all.
Sacred spaces and divinely inspired or otherwise authoritative scriptures comprise the author’s first and second categories of religiously created resources. Such spaces and scriptures are scarce, for example, because only some people will receive access to them or because only a few will be ordained with the power to control or interpret them. Group privilege and salvation constitute Avalos’ third and fourth general categories, neither of which will be conferred on a person, consistent with major religious traditions, except under extraordinary circumstances. Obviously, all such resources are related and, in many ways, interdependent.
“Inscripturation” might naturally lead to viciousness, Avalos notes, for those who refuse to recognize the authority of a particular sacred text. The scriptures themselves, in fact, often justify such nastiness. In Deuteronomy 18:20, for instance, Yahweh unceremoniously sentences all followers of other gods to death. For Christians, of course, the Tanakh or “Old Testament” has been superseded by a new collection of texts, many of which are similarly belligerent. In Galatians 1:8 Paul curses any man or angel who dares to proclaim a contrary gospel, and in 2 Peter 2:1 “swift destruction” is prescribed for all false prophets and teachers.
But bloodshed might also result when two or more religious groups disagree on the proper interpretation or observance of scripture–in other words, when men attempt to render such texts scarce. Avalos offers Muhammad’s massacre of the Qurayza Jews in the seventh century C.E. as a particularly horrific yet pertinent example. Whatever else Muhammad might have been thinking, he was clearly motivated to violence in part by the Jews’ refusal to abandon their scriptural laws in favor of Islam’s new tenets, including those (on the Jewish understanding) proclaiming Muhammad’s identity as the messiah. Insofar as Muhammad “aspired for control over this [scriptural] resource,” Avalos writes, “[t]his is indeed a case in which conflicts over scripture played a major role in violence” (255).
One could hardly contemplate the concept of sacred space, of course, without donating considerable attention to the subjects of Israel, Jerusalem, the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sherif (‘noble sanctuary’ in Arabic), and the violence perpetrated in their names by the followers of the three Abrahamic monotheisms.Jerusalem, in fact, has been battled over 118 times and completely obliterated twice. The city has suffered five separate periods of brutal terrorist attacks during the last century alone and has changed hands peacefully only twice in four thousand years. Rebuffing purely political theories of such hostility and of Zionism as well, Avalos points out that only faith in the Abrahamic gods and scriptures can explain such ruthless and relentless violence.
Then, comparing Pope Urban II’s November 27, 1095 sermon initiating the First Crusade to Osama bin Laden’s February 23, 1998 fatwa condemning America’s involvement in the Middle East, the author contends that the West’s “war on terror” is seen fundamentally as a battle for control over what bin Laden referred to as Islam’s “holiest places” (263). According to Avalos, “The United States is using political and military power [at least in bin Laden’s estimation] in order to carry out what is essentially a religious or anti-Islamic agenda that is aligned with Zionism, which is all about sacred space” (263).
Group privileging is inherent in the Tanakh, Avalos reasons, because “[o]ne obvious concomitant of seeing yourself as chosen is that it instantly creates insiders and outsiders” [emphasis mine] (141). In Deuteronomy 23:3, certain ethnic groups are prescribed from joining any “assembly of the LORD.” In Ezra 10:3-44, Jews are discouraged from marrying non-Jews. These exclusive proclivities, however, only foreshadow the consistent and shocking references to genocidal imperialism throughout the Tanakh. As the author surmises, “the repeated notions that Yahweh will conquer the entire world do not differ much from some conceptions of jihad” (143). Indeed, the authors of these sacred texts seem to demand violence as the only appropriate response to religious competition.
But in time, of course, the Jews would suffer similar (if not more severe) consequences of religious group privileging. Much New Testament scripture supports discrimination and aggression against Jews, as do the writings of many influential Christian fathers, including those ofSt. Augustineand John Chysostum. Small wonder that thousands of Jews were expelled fromEngland,France, andSpainduring the Middle Ages, and that the First Crusaders chose Jews as their initial victims in 1096.
According to Avalos, in fact, it was Martin Luther, the founder of Christian Protestantism, who eventually “spouted forth a plan of action against the Jews that became the blueprint of the Nazi holocaust” (195). Considering the plethora of textual support and the appalling history, one might easily conclude that Christian violence against Jews was and is a natural, perhaps unavoidable, consequence of the religion’s basic theology–particularly the convictions that Jews were principally responsible for the death of Jesus and that those who are incapable of accepting Jesus as God are doomed to a tortuous fate upon his return.
Unsurprisingly, Christian dogma is saturated with soteriological justifications for violence as well. Consistent with prevailing theology, after all, salvation could not possibly occur in the first place but for Christ’s suffering and death. Also, as Avalos notes, Paul was actually forced to convert, and consistent with that model,St. Augustine later wrote that the Jews should be compelled to retain the Christian faith once they received it. These elemental Christian ideals–the perceived holiness of torment and affliction and the acceptance of forced conversion–have (perhaps more than any others) rendered Christianity a nearly unrivaled catalyst for organized aggression.
Yet, Avalos reveals, certain passages of the Qur’an are completely shameless and unqualified in their conviction that violence is “not only an instrument of good,” but also “an essential part of Islam” (270). Competition for salvation, religion’s “ultimate supernatural prize,” leads to absurdly destructive results, including martyrdom, inquisition, holy war, and genocide (109). Because of its supreme consequence, anything that allegedly impedes its achievement will eventually be subject to attack in one form or another.
No reasonable person, however, would argue that religion is the sole source of violence. But “secular philosophies,” Avalos contends, “are not as clear a motive for violence as is often supposed” (301). Before concluding his new book, the author convincingly disposes of desperate religious apologists who attempt to define Nazism, for example, as a reflection or natural extension of atheism. The Holocaust, Avalos argues, “represent[ed] a synthesis of attitudes found in both the New Testament and the Hebrew scriptures” (318). And although Joseph Stalin certainly terrorized religious entities in many ways, he did so for political reasons. The author, in fact, asserts a complete absence of “any direct evidence [that Stalin] killed because of atheism” (326). By contrast, history’s pages are replete with horrific accounts featuring religious leaders who murdered thousands or moved others to do so only–and in fact expressly–in the name of their god or religious doctrine.
Although all serious nonfiction readers will presumably appreciate Hector Avalos’ hard work and discipline, dedicated secularists of all habits will be among those to applaud his candor, passion, and refreshing sense of social duty as well. Avalos is not content to simply refute exasperatingly fashionable decrees that Abrahamic scriptures ought to be reappropriated for their subjective aesthetic value, that Jesus’ “essential” message was one of cosmopolitan peace and love, and that, on balance, monotheistic religions have historically produced more righteousness than ruin. He also encourages us to confront religionists about their dangerous beliefs and to either assist them in modifying their traditions in such a way as to thwart the maintenance and creation of unverifiable scarcities, or commit ourselves to the elimination of their violent traditions.
From a perspective that is both rational and compassionate, one is compelled to at least sympathize with if not subscribe to the author’s “zero-tolerance” prescription (360). After all, as Avalos reminds us, “nowhere in Mein Kampf is there anything as explicit as the policy of killing Canaanites in Deuteronomy 7 and 20 and 1 Samuel 15″ (361). Islamic texts and traditions, of course, are no less bellicose. Indeed, history has time and again demonstrated that religionists are both capable and willing to commit atrocities consistent with their sacred scriptures and customs.
Finally, reemphasizing that there can exist no “real” version or, conversely, no especially unjustified “perversion” of any religious tradition, Avalos concludes with a warning to the Bush administration, citing its apparent intent to restrain an allegedly false construction of Islam in favor of a purportedly more peaceful or compliant one. “An effective foreign policy,” he writes, “must include an educational program that convinces world citizens that violence about resources that do not or that cannot be verified to exist, is against their own interest” (378). Perhaps Avalos is right. But the initial challenge, of course, concerns the education of senior officials in the Bush administration.