‘Secularism is a Humanism’ and Other Important Information

Jim West has recently agitated a few people in his post about Dawkins (here).   One scholar, Professor Avalos, has made it clear that he will expose Jim’s hypocrisy; this would not be the first time Jim and Avalos have exchanged blows.  But I wonder about the value of this back and forth between them and if it really accomplishes anything useful. Below are a couple of points before I get into anything heavy.

First, I don’t know whether or not Dawkins lied.  It isn’t any of my concern.  As far as it goes, Dawkins is an excellent zoologist and I love his work on memes and evolution but that is as far as it goes for me.  I can understand why people like Dawkins as an atheist but frankly he never impressed me.  And that’s fine–at least it should be–since I find the whole ‘does God exist’ debate to be dull and redundant.  But for others, I understand, it is a big issue.

Second, I don’t know if Jim is a hypocrite or not, but I’m certain he has made mistakes and false statements before (though he may deny both).  Perhaps not intentionally, but I recall one time where he posted up a false quote attributed to Darwin and, though he had been told that it was not a real quote, he still has it posted and never offered a retraction or made any indication that he cared.  That is troubling, since I know many Christians rely on Jim to bring them accurate information, even if he would rather them do their own fact-checking.

Third, I have known Hector Avalos for some time.  He and I do not always see eye to eye.  But I respect him and his scholarship and I believe that Avalos is a good and genuine person.  The same goes for Jim West.  I know Jim has his enemies, but I would not count myself among them.  I know Jim to be a dedicated scholar and an good person.

With that said, I have some gripes with both of them at the moment.  It has become clear to me that both scholars have developed mythical constructs of the other and rather than dealing with relevant and interesting questions that I believe they could both contribute to (and therefore advance the field of Biblical Studies), they are wasting their time attacking the mythos they have created–nothing but a caricature of the other.  And the fault rests with both of them.

Ad hominem attacks are common in academia–far too common if you ask me–and help no one.  Minimalists like Jim should know better since we are constantly defending ourselves from pot shots taken at us by BAR, or certain maximalists, and others.  We keep telling them, in our replies, that the arguments stand for themselves.  Attacking the person (as BAR had done to Yuval Goren) accomplishes nothing and is the lowest form of an argument.  Yet Jim is carrying the torch to light the flame war against Dawkins.  And I can see why Jim feels the need to do so, since he feels that certain atheists are out to destroy his profession, shut down churches, and remove all forms of Christian worship.

Avalos sees this assault on Dawkins as an assault on reason.  He believes Jim has misrepresented the facts, and maybe he has, but I don’t see how threatening to expose him will make a difference.  Those who agree with Jim will ignore Avalos and those who agree with Avalos will champion his article.  The problem here is that minds are closed to each other because one side sees the other as the definition of evil, of irrationality, or of depravity.

There is a threat out there, however.  There is a danger.  But this danger is the encapsulation of ones inability to compromise and live together in a functional society.  Both Jim and Avalos see society as broken in many ways.  Each blames the ideals of the other for it.  But they’re both wrong.  They’re wrong because the reason society is broken is precisely because each side has refused to budge, has refused to allow any sort of conversation.  I’ve written on these fabricated mythical figures before.   Wise words on deaf ears.

Just recently I was asked to co-moderate an open dialogue between a secular humanist group in Philadelphia and a local church.  The point of this dialogue seems to me to be an attempt by both sides to see beyond the fabricated mythos each has in place of the other, to develop a common bond and work together to bring about a more peaceful, tolerant world.  I was honored when they invited me to participate and I look forward to working with my christian counterpart to make this a very successful first meeting.   I hope that, if the meeting goes well, other groups both secular and religious will follow in our footsteps, permit an open discussion.

And that is my hope now.  Both Avalos and Jim are leaders.  People look up to them, expect to be guided.  Jim has stated before that being a man of faith is a calling to do the right thing.  And I believe that the right thing is to open a channel of communication.  Extend the olive branch.  Differences over matters of faith seem petty compared to the compromises that can be made and the positive consequences that come from them.

τί δὲ βλέπεις τὸ κάρφος τὸ ἐν τῷ ὀφθαλμῷ τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ σου, τὴν δὲ ἐν τῷ σῷ ὀφθαλμῷ δοκὸν οὐ κατανοεῖς (Matt. 7:3)

More wise words.  Let us hope they do not fall upon deaf ears.

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5 Responses

  1. James
    A great post, Despite being a rather outspoken atheist, I do not really see religious people as fundamentally different in thought, reason, or capacity to be moral from me or my ilk. The polarization between religious and non-religious folk on these and other grounds is really unfortunate.

    I really like the accent you place on the “mythical” other: myth making is not only religious, but goes beyond that. It is essentially human. Nations can produce group integrity in way’s comparable to religions and there are totems and icons of the atheist “movement”, not to mention some attempts to produce an “orthodoxy” (not that this means atheism is a religion, but merely shares with religion the fact that the people in either think in comparable ways).

    When emotions get heated, argument goes out the window and one gets claims of deceit, hypocrisy and so forth. It is really unfortunate. On the other hand, the fireworks can be entertaining from time to time…

  2. Oops, while I was writing this I was thinking of a different conversation on a similar topic with someone else, and I wrote “James” instead of “Tom”! Sorry about that!

  3. Thanks Jim! I agree. If you read my blog post on atheism I share you views on this. I link to it in my article above.

  4. What an apt reference to Matt 7:3. It is a tragedy that so often the critical issues of today’s world are overlooked in a point scoring exercise over the minutiae of doctrine. When so many values and virtues are shared between theists and humanists, these should be celebrated and emphasised in an effort to build some bridges.
    Great post – thanks very much.

  5. […] (very) brief autobiography on my rejection of atheism.  If I define myself in any way, it is that I’m a humanist and a secularist and an existentialist.   That doesn’t mean I don’t have an edge.  What it does mean is I just find labels […]

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