I’ve been hearing a lot over the past day or so about the discovery of a new gospel fragment, and whether it means that Jesus had a wife… I have no authority in this area, nor do I really care, but the following link tells it like it is and gives you the basics on what is going on. I suggest reading it before sending your own opinion into the social media ether…
Via Stephen Bedard on Hope’s Reason – problematising the notion that all religion is to do with a quest for the afterlife:
It is common to hear the accusation that religion was created by those who feared death and needed some sort of afterlife. Really? And what research is that based on? Your neighbour who had a medical scare and decided to start attending church? I am sure that there are people who get interested in religion because of a fear of death but historically that is not a very good explanation. I will provide a couple of examples.
Ancient Egyptian religion would seem to support the afterlife hypothesis, with all its mummies and pyramids and magnificent tombs. Except when you look closely and discover that the afterlife was originally only for the Pharaoh, then gradually for the aristocracy and only later for people in general. Ancient Greek religion had a concept of Hades where the shades of the dead dwelt. But this was no source of hope for the Greeks. It was a shadowy existence that was not much fun. Even the great heroes lacked hope for a glorious afterlife.
What about the Bible? We all know Christianity is all about the afterlife. It is true that the resurrection, both of Jesus and the believer, is very important to the Christian faith. But before there was an New Testament, there was an Old Testament. Read through the Old Testament and look for evidence of an afterlife. Most of post-death existence is described as Sheol, which despite the KJV translation as hell, is really just the grave. If there is any consciousness in Sheol, it is that shadowy existence such as what we find in the Greek Hades. There are only two passages in the Old Testament that clearly provide hope for an afterlife, and both are fairly late.
“Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead.” (Isaiah 26:19 ESV)
“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” (Daniel 12:2–3 ESV)
If you want to learn more about the development of the afterlife in the Old and New Testaments, see my book Finding a New Land. The point is that an afterlife does not play a central role in the Old Testament and therefore was not the motivation for biblical religion. I am not suggesting that the afterlife is unimportant, only that a fear of death is not sufficient to explain the rise of religion, either in general or in the Bible.
I’m pretty busy with my thesis right now… hence the sudden fall off in proper posts. However, one of the good things about getting back into the office and working on the University computers is that I had a dig through my old documents and came across some essays and assignments that I submitted as a first year undergraduate. During that time I took some Theology courses… and some biblical studies courses. I thought it might be interesting to share some of the things that I submitted… in an attempt to show that you don’t have to believe in what you are studying to engage with it. Especially with biblical studies… some of the stories are just absolutely fascinating. Here is a piece that I wrote on II Samuel 13: 1-22 – a quite shocking (and thus, unfortunately, often overlooked) story about David’s son and daughter, Amnon and Tamar.
Power and Powerlessness in II Samuel 13: 1-22
The story of Amnon’s rape of Tamar is one of the many passages in the Hebrew Bible that can prove shocking to the modern reader. This is illustrated well by the fact that, in the opening paragraphs of many commentaries, the authors feel compelled to highlight the nature of the account as “exceptionally tense” (Hertzberg, 1964:322), “frighteningly realistic” (Evans, 2004:220) or even “revolting” (Kirkpatrick, 1930:341). However, when looking at the passage in the form in which we have it today, it is important to not become distracted by subject matter, but to see the story as it is in its context. In this passage, the doom pronounced on David’s house in the previous chapter [2 Sam 12:10] begins to receive its fulfilment (ibid), and the passage also “stands as a prologue to the account of (Absalom’s) rebellion in chapters 15-20” (McCarter Jr., 1984:327).
Much modern scholarship (particularly Christian scholarship) tends to focus on the character of Tamar and her tragic fate, but, as Hertzberg points out, whilst Tamar is indeed the “tragic figure of the drama, (…) in the general context she is merely a subsidiary figure whose fate is only important for the light it sheds on the struggle between the two oldest princes and its further consequences for the history of the kingdom of David” (Hertzberg, 1964:322). Marie Evans believes the focus of the text to be “the use and abuse of power” (2004:222) and it is the intention of this essay to build upon this belief by identifying and discussing the various manifestations of power and powerlessness in the text, rather than focussing on one individual character.
At the very beginning of the chapter we are made aware that the recorded events related to the previous chapters. Whilst “in the course of time” [2 Sam 13:1] does not denote a precise duration of time, the phrase “was intended to provide the link between chapters 12 and 13” (Mauchline, 1971:259) – these chapters, along with David’s indiscretion in chapter 11, are connected as cause and effect (Kirkpatrick, 1930:341).
The main characters of the story – Amnon, his father David, Amnon’s half-sister Tamar, and her brother Absalom – are introduced in verse 1, and we learn that not only has Amnon fallen in love with Tamar [v. 1] but that Amnon became “frustrated to the point of illness” because “it seemed impossible for him to do anything to her” [v. 2].
Because of the clarification that Amnon was so frustrated because he wish to do something to Tamar, it is clear that Amnon’s is confusing lust with love (Conroy, 1978:23), and that he is “dominated by the same sensuality as his father” (Hertzberg, 1964:322). Not only is he presented as being powerless against his desires, he is also powerless to do carry them out because she was a virgin [v. 2] – “unmarried girls, and particularly those of the royal house, would be carefully guarded” (McCarter Jr., 1984:321).
In verse 3 we are introduced to the only other character in the story, David’s nephew Jonadab, indicating that whilst this whole affair will have far-reaching consequences, it is essentially a family affair. (Conroy, 1978:28) Jonadab notices how Amnon’s frustration is affecting him physically [v. 4] and addresses him as “the king’s son” – emphasising the dichotomy between the powerlessness he was feeling, and the power he should be experiencing “as a prince with all the privileges of royalty” (Mowley, 1998:182).
Before the plot is developed in verse 5, the reader is subtly reminded of the ominous presence of Absalom – Amnon identifies Tamar as his “brother Absalom’s sister” [v. 4], emphasizing to Jonadab just how bad the situation is, and alerting the reader that Absalom is very much involved in the story, even though he is currently ‘backstage.’
From verse 5 onwards, Amnon is presented as exerting power and authority, albeit for his own selfish ends and, as throughout this entire passage, always subject to the power of his own lust. Here, Jonadab provides Amnon with a crafty plan to see Tamar in private, but one that will require the (innocent) collusion of King David. In actuality this presents no problems, and verses 6 and 7 describe how David believes Amnon’s feigned illness and sends for Tamar. Apart from illustrating the power of Amnon and Jonadab, who successfully manage to trick and manipulate the king, these verses also say something about the power of King David: this is the first instance in this passage where David is seen as a power that must be appealed to – whilst the exercising of this power is overshadowed by Amnon’s manipulation, the important notion here is the necessity of appealing to David, and the potential that had David exercised his power in a different way, the following events would not have occurred (Evans, 2004:221).
Tamar arrives at the house of her brother Amnon [v. 8], silently obedient and submissive to the wishes of her father, the king, and her brother, the crown prince. Amnon, however, refuses to eat the food that she has prepared for him [v. 9], and orders everyone to leave the room – an action which Hertzberg regards as “a whim of the crown prince, who is so used to giving orders” (Hertzberg, 1964:323).
After dispensing with the servants, Amnon continues exerting his power, effectively ordering his sister to bring the food to him in his bedroom [v. 10] and again, physically grabbing her saying, “Come to bed with me, my sister” [v. 11].
What follows in verses 12 and 13 is an impassioned speech from Tamar. She recognises that she is powerless to stop her much stronger [v. 14] brother carrying out his wishes, so she appeals to two more powerful authorities – custom [v. 12 & 13] and the king [v. 13]. The reason Tamar gives for condemning Amnon’s wishes as a “wicked thing” is that “such a thing should not be done in Israel.” Regardless of whether she is referring to incest, or premarital sexual relations, it is worth noting that in this case “morality (…) finds its sanction in custom, not in a written code,” (Kennedy, 1905:252) – here she is referring to “serious violations of custom [Gen 20:9; 29:26] that threaten the fabric of society” (McCarter Jr., 1984:322) She makes no reference to the Law, or to the authority of God, and it is at this point that the reader first realises that God is mysteriously missing from this ‘revolting’ story. When looking into the subtext of Tamar’s statement that Amnon would be “like one of the wicked fools in Israel” [v. 13], Kirkpatrick tells us that the term “fool denotes not merely one who is stupid and ignorant, but one who has abandoned the fear of God, and cast off the restraints of decency and morality” (Kirkpatrick, 1930:343) Whilst this description certainly fits with the character of Amnon presented in the text, and whilst the narrator may indeed have intended the reader to pick up on this meaning, if we accept the apparent absence of God in this passage, this places more responsibility on the individuals capable of changing the situation, and their use and misuse of power.
Tamar’s appeal for Amnon to speak to the king [v. 13] has provoked much academic discussion. This discussion is generally directed towards the nature of Amnon’s sin (incest or rape), but it can also prove useful in discerning how much power David would have had in this matter. Numerous questions arise: Was the law stated in Leviticus 18:9, prohibiting sexual relations between siblings and half-siblings, in place? If so, does Tamar assume David would use his power as king to overrule this law? If not, is David to be appealed to as a father or as a king?
There is a lot of disagreement amongst scholars about whether the law of Leviticus 18:9 is in place. McCarter Jr. (with Mowley, 1998:182) believes that the most defensible position is that the laws were in full effect, and that unless Tamar is merely temporising, her “assumption that David would be willing to overlook such a prohibition in order to accede to Amnon’s request is consistent with what we know of David’s attitude elsewhere [v. 21]” (1984:324). Whilst this is based slightly more recent scholarship, by the simple fact that Tamar makes no reference to God or any legal code, it seems more reasonable for us to accept the opposing position of Mauchline (with Kirkpatrick, 1930:343) that Amnon “could have married her in the ordinary way” for “the marriage of a brother and half-sister was possible at this stage of Israel’s history” (1971:260). If we accept that this is the case, it is reasonable to conclude that Tamar is appealing to David as a father who has the power to grant or refuse a marriage proposal.
After clearly demonstrating his physical power by raping Tamar [v. 14], Amnon continues to treat her like a servant, ordering her to “Get up and get out” [v. 15]. We are told that, not only did Amnon suddenly hate her, but that “he hated her more than he had loved her.” This sexual, psychological factor is a natural progression of Amnon’s (now fulfilled) lust from verse 2, for “it is human nature to hate those whom you have injured” (McCarter Jr., 1984:324,citing Tacitus). This demonstrates how powerless Amnon really is against his base, human nature.
Amnon refuses to listen to any further protest from his sister Tamar, and has his servant unceremoniously throw her outside outside, and bolt the door behind her [vv. 16-18]. Tamar, who has acted blamelessly throughout because she did everything in her power to stop Amnon disgracing them both, then tears her robe, puts ashes on her head and goes away weeping aloud, performing “all the signs of mourning, not for the loss of a loved one, but for the loss of her virginity” (Mowley, 1998:184).
In verse 20, Absalom takes an active part in the story for the first time. It is interesting to note that Tamar turns to her brother Absalom after the incident, and not to her father, David. Conroy suggests two possible reasons why this might be the case – there may be have been more solidarity between siblings than between a father of many offspring and his children, or Tamar may have held David partly responsible for what happened (1978:18). Both of these alternatives diminish David’s power and influence over his children, the only difference being that in the first case this was always so, and in the second it is the result of these recent events.
Some translations, such as the New International Version, do not include the full version of verse 21 (included in the Septuagint and the ordinary text of the Vulgate (Kirkpatrick, 1930:345)), which reads, “When King David heard of all these things, he was very angry; but he did nothing to harm his son, for he loved him, because he was his firstborn” (Hertzberg, 1964:322). However, the inclusion of the italicised text makes little or no difference to how we interpret the text. Whether David did not act because of his love for his son, or because “he was reminded of his own misconduct and could hardly punish his son for a similar offence” (Mowley, 1998:185), it is clear that David, who had the power to intervene as both king and father, did not do so.
In the final verse of this passage, we see Absalom, Tamar’s actual brother, silently hating his half-brother Amnon. According to Kirkpatrick, by oriental custom, Absalom had both the power and the duty to avenge his sister’s wrongs (1930:345). However, Absalom chooses not to exercise this power – this could be seen as a sign of weakness (maybe he feared that the house of David would be discredited if he made a sharp protest ) but it is far more likely, given his eventual murder of Amnon, that he is exercising his power wisely, by biding his time (McCarter Jr., 1984:326)
Power has clearly been a major theme running right through this text. What we have been presented with is a situation where four human characters all use, or misuse power in various ways, in a situation in which God plays no active, recorded role: Amnon is the powerful crown prince, who is powerless to resist his sexual urges, and uses his royal powers and physical strength to satisfy this lust; Tamar is the powerless victim who tries everything within her power to prevent the events taking place; David is the powerful king who fails to appropriately use his power to prevent the situation; and Absalom wilfully withholds his power, preferring to bide his time and take revenge at a more suitable moment. There is a clear “pattern of reversal, upset and contrast” (Conroy, 1978:36-37) at work here – those who have power (Absalom, Amnon and David) misuse it, and Tamar, who is powerless, is the only character to emerge blameless, albeit as “a desolate woman” [v. 20].
• Conroy, Charles, Absalom Absalom! (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1978)
• Driver, S. R., Notes on the Hebrew Text and the Topography of the Books of Samuel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913)
• Evans, Mary J., The Message of Samuel (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004)
• Hertzberg, Hanz Wilhelm, I & II Samuel (London: SCM Press, 1964)
• Kennedy, A. R. S., Samuel (Edinburgh: TC & EC Jack, 1905)
• Kirkpatrick, A. F., The First and Second Books of Samuel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930)
• Mauchline, John, 1 & 2 Samuel (London: Oliphants, 1971)
• McCarter Jr., P. Kyle, II Samuel (Garden City: Doubleday, 1984)
• Mowley, Harry, 1 & 2 Samuel (Oxford: The Bible Reading Fellowship, 1998)
I have just finished reading Amarnath Amarasingam’s recent journal article “To Err in their Ways: The Attribution Biases of the New Atheists” (2010), and I really don’t know how to react. I found myself agreeing emphatically with some of his well-researched points, and yet at other times I was hitting the roof at how unfair and inappropriate some of his statements were. To that end, I just wanted to share my thoughts on the article… positive and negative… and hopefully you can draw your own conclusions.
Firstly, Amarasingam writes:
‘The academic community, with a few exceptions, has largely dismissed the[ New Atheists’] writings as unsophisticated, crude, and lacking nuance.’ (574)
This is not necessarily a criticism of Amarasingam, but a criticism of most academic treatments of atheism (‘New’ or ‘old’). What I want to know is what gives the academic community the right to do this? I guess it is possible to do this from a philosophical perspective… but if we are looking at these texts from a religious studies perspective, it is not our place to critique them in this way. Imagine if a religious studies scholar read something by Karl Barth or al-Ghazali and deemed it ‘unsophisticated’, ‘crude’ or ‘lacking nuance’! According to http://info.wlu.ca/randc/phd/phd-students.html, Amarasingam is a PhD student in Religious Studies, ‘working in the area of sociology of religion with a focus on social theory’, yet he refers to New Atheism as an “evangelical revival and repackaging of old ideas” and deems the frequency of comments posted in the Converts Corner of Dawkins’ website ‘ad nauseum’.
Amarasingam begins by discussing what he describes as “the fundamental attribution error. This is:
“a pervasive tendency on the part of observers to overestimate personality or dispositional causes of behaviour and to underestimate the influence of situational constraints on behaviour’’
Tetlock, PE, 1985. “Accountability: a social check on the fundamental attribution error” in Psychology Quarterly, 48(3):227-236, p. 227.
‘I am not arguing that secularists are the only group that succumb to attribution biases. Christians may view Muslims as a coherent whole, even though this is far from the case, and Muslims in turn may view secularists with similar biases. However, I focus on the new atheism, because it often presents itself as an objective, value-free, and universal critique of religion en bloc.’ (575)
‘One of the most replicated […tendencies that individuals exhibit when attempting to understand why others behave the way they do] is one in which individuals assume that some stable dispositional or attitudinal characteristic lies behind the behaviour of another. [… P]eople often downplay situational reasons for the actions of others while overestimating the significance of dispositional causes.’ (575)
So far so good. I can totally relate to this. As human beings we all too frequently make statements such as “That’s so typical of a…”, without giving that ‘other’ the respect that we would give ourselves by discerning situational reasons for such-and-such an action/statement/belief/etc.
However, Amarasingam suddenly stumbles when he states that ‘It must be noted that religious belief is best treated as a situational cause of individual behaviour, and not as a disposition’ (576). Why is this the case? He provides no justification for making this statement and just assumes that it is obvious. He continues:
‘At times, [New Atheists] effectively treat religion as a social constraint and critique it accordingly. At other times, they treat individual religious actions as if they were dispositional.’ (576)
But is it not both? Doesn’t everyone do this when they assess things? I see his point… we should treat religious actions as both dispositional and situational… but I would imagine that everyone is guilty of focussing on one to the detriment of the other at specific instances in time. The fact that they consider both aspects throughout their writings could be seen as a positive… Just a thought…
Amarasingam then moves on to the following statement from Sam Harris:
‘‘The men who committed the atrocities of September 11 were certainly not ‘cowards’, as they were repeatedly described in the Western media, nor were they lunatics in any ordinary sense. They were men of faith – perfect faith, as it turns out – and this, it must finally be acknowledged, is a terrible thing to be.’’(2006, 67)
From this, Amarasingam somehow infers that, ‘For Harris, all that is required to understand the terrorist acts of 9/11 is the knowledge of the fact that these individuals were people of faith. Situational causes – Western injustice, geopolitical realities, etc. – do not need to be factored into the equation’ (576). Whilst I understand the point that he wishes to make, my problem is with the statement ‘all that is required’… Harris does not say this at all. He makes it quite plain that ‘faith’ is what he sees to be the most important element… but he does not say that it is all that is required. That being said, I do agree with his further elaboration that: ‘To continue to argue that religion is about blind faith and not open to discussion and criticism seems disingenuous’ (576).
At this point I had a thought. Could it have been that the idea of religion and science as non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) stopped civilised debate occurring between atheistic and theistic positions before the publications of New Atheistic literature? Could the New Atheists’ books be a deliberate overstatement to force the religious to clarify their position and open up a dialogue?
One of the things that Amarasingam does well, is to draw attention to these massive overstatements which lace the texts of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens. He writes:
‘Although there is much in Hitchens’ text to admire, and several philosophical arguments to take seriously, his presentation of basic historical facts about religion as if they are revelatory is rather perplexing, especially since most religious people (not to mention theologians and scholars of religion) have known about them for years.’ (576)
As a ‘scholar of religion’, and someone who has had experience with religious faith, I could not agree more. Most religious people are well aware of the inconsistencies of their religious tradition, and
‘just because [they] have learned to live with inconsistencies in their religious tradition, this does not mean that they practice blind faith. Hitchens’ claim that religion is man-made is particularly revealing as he believes himself, once having stated it, to have made a devastating critique of religion.’ (577)
Just as in science, religious people tend to adapt to new revelatory facts about their faith by accepting, adapting and revising, or stubbornly sticking to old paradigms. This is human nature… the religious do not all, or even mostly, live up to the caricature depicted by many atheists. They do not all stubbornly resist the discoveries of history and science, but take them, work with them, and attempt to understand them and work them into their worldview.
Whilst it pains me to agree with him, the theological critique of John Haught hits the nail on the head, when he writes that in arguing that faith is simply
‘‘‘belief without evidence,’’ the new atheists are undermining ‘‘the intended universality’’ of their condemnation of faith: ‘‘Even one white crow is enough to show that not all crows are black, so surely the existence of countless believers who reject the new atheists’ simplistic definition of faith is enough to place in question the applicability of their critiques to a significant sector of the religious population’’’ (577)
Citing Haught, JF, 2008. God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 62
Amarasingam continues to hit the nail on the head, when he finds Dawkins, in an interview on Youtube, stating, in opposition to this criticism, that
‘“it’s no good saying ‘oh, that’s not my kind of Christianity!’ Well fine, it is not your kind of Christianity, but I didn’t write the book for you’’ […]. Such candid statements by Dawkins contradict the intended universality of his writings. It is unclear, then, whether the writings of the new atheists are aimed at religious fundamentalists or religion en bloc.’ (577)
Getting back to the fundamental attribution error, Amarasingam writes:
‘when the group that we are a member of performs a positive act, we are more likely to see that act as stemming from a dispositional trait. But, when this in-group performs a negative act, we are more likely to see it as stemming from situational, contextual, causes. When it comes to the out-group, however, we tend to do the opposite.’ (578)
This certainly makes sense, and is something which Richard Dawkins draws attention to himself.
‘When their loyalty to Judaism was removed from the calculation, the majority of the children [considered in an experiment by George Tamarin in Israel] agreed with the moral judgements that most modern humans would share. […] But it all looks different from a religious point of view. And the difference starts in early life. [… Religion] made the difference between children condemning genocide and condoning it.” (Dawkins 2007, 292)
‘As Pettigrew (1979: 464) has noted, there ‘‘appears to be a positivity bias for intimate others, such that you grant them the benefit of the doubt by attributing positive actions to dispositional causes and negative actions to situational causes’’ […] Similarly, there is often a negativity bias, where the situational constraints of a negative action performed by an individual member of a disliked group are underplayed in favour of dispositional explanations. ‘‘And often when race and ethnicity are involved, these attributions will take the form of believing the actions to be a result of immutable, genetic characteristics of the derogated group in general – the bedrock assumption of racist doctrine’’ (Pettigrew, 1979: 465). Although I am certainly not calling the new atheists racist, they do, as we will see, repeatedly fall victim to what is known as the ‘‘ultimate attribution error’’: whenever a member of the out-group (i.e. adherents to a particular religion) perform a positive act inconsistent with their overall view of the group (i.e. all religious people), the new atheists either dismiss it as an exception to the rule or deny that religion had anything to do with the positive act. The reverse is true when the new atheists deal with their in-group (other secularists).’ (578)
Citing Pettigrew, TF, 1979. “The ultimate attribution error: extending Allport’s cognitive analysis of prejudice” in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 5:461-476.
‘As Sam Harris (2006: 78) notes, ‘‘the fact that faith has motivated many people to do good things does not suggest that faith is itself a necessary (or even a good) motivation for goodness.’’ This is indeed true: faith, and/or religion, is not necessary for people to be good. However, neither is it a sufficient element for the perpetration of evil. Harris (2006: 78–79), however, does not allow for this: ‘‘By contrast, the most monstrous crimes against humanity have invariably been inspired by unjustified belief. This is nearly a truism.’’ Here we see the ultimate attribution error in full bloom.’ (579)
From my own experience of New Atheist literature, this criticism certainly rings true. However, I would disagree when Amarasingam turns to the New Atheist criticism of the Holocaust. Taking Sam Harris’s statement that ‘knowingly or not, the Nazis were agents of religion’’ (2006:79), Amarasingam writes:
‘Such attribution errors are common in the new atheist corpus. Harris does not even attempt to explain why, if Christian anti-Semitism was the sole driving force behind the Holocaust, the Nazis also attempted to eliminate the Romani people, the deaf, the disabled, as well as homosexuals’ (580).
Sam Harris has not stated that Christian anti-Semitism was the “sole driving force” behind the Holocaust, but that the Nazis were fulfilling a path laid by the religious situation in Germany at this time. Whilst it is not debatable that the Holocaust targeted many more people than just ‘the Jews’, these were certainly the primary targets of Hitler’s extermination. And whilst ‘religion’ is not the only factor involved here, a brief glance at the situation of the Jews in Europe in general in the centuries leading up to the Holocaust, and particularly in Germany will demonstrate that the common, and indeed Christian, attitude to the Jews was largely responsible for providing an atmosphere in which the Holocaust could happen.
To take but a few examples of Christian anti-Semitism at the time of Hitler, Joachim Hossenfelder (1932) – wrote that the Church must help “cleanse the German nation of the foreign blood of the Jews”, Reinhold Krause (1933) declared the Old Testament, the apostle Paul, and the symbol of the Cross to be debilitating signs of Judaism, and Bishop Muller (1934) decreed that Hitler was to be considered the supreme authority of the church. This anti-Semitism was not new to the twentieth century, but had been present for many years before, in the writings of, for example, Wilhelm Marr (1879), Heinrich von Trietschke (1880), and of course the composer Richard Wagner, who wrote in 1850 that moneyed Jews “held it wise to make a Christian baptism wash away the traces of [their origin]”, and that “to become man at once with us, however, means firstly for the Jew as much as ceasing to be a Jew.”
I am not wishing to argue here that Christianity was responsible for Hitler. But simply that Amarasingam is being unnecessarily harsh to Sam Harris in this instance. I would thoroughly recommend seeing (Ericksen and Heschel 1999) for more information on this issue.
Turning to the idea of group consensus, Amarasingam writes that:
‘at times, the[ New Atheists] complain that organizing their fellow secular humanists is a bit like ‘‘herding cats’’ because they are ‘‘such independent thinkers,’’ while viewing religion as homogeneously irrational. At other times, they view themselves as a homogeneous, enlightened whole, fighting back superstition.’ (582)
Whilst I agree that there is some ambiguity here, it would be helpful is Amarasingam included some citations (see my previous post). And can these not be the same thing? Can a group of enlightened, independent thinkers, not fight back superstition in their own individual ways? However, this is me simply being a pedant. Continuing once more:
‘When faced with a threatening group, ‘‘perceivers are quite willing to infer the presence of a consensus without much information simply because they want  to see the group as a unified whole’’ (Corneille et al., 2001: 440). Such biases will become apparent below when we explore the new atheist treatment of Islam.’ (583-4)
Citing Cornielle O, Yzerbyt VY, Rogier A and Buidin B (2001) “Threat and the group attribution error: when threat elicits judgements of extremity and homogeneity” in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 27:437-446.
‘For Harris, the out-group, Islam, is indeed thoroughly homogeneous. For example, he argues that ‘‘If a twenty-first century  Muslim loses his faith, though he may have been a Muslim only for a single hour, the normative response, everywhere under Islam, is to kill him’’ (2006: 115; italics added). If we are to believe Harris, Muslims, regardless of whether they live in Dearborn or Dubai, live under the fear of death if they even contemplate apostasy. As Corneille et al. (2001: 440) noted, individuals are more than willing to believe there is a consensus in a given community simply because they wish to see this community as homogeneous.’ (584-5)
I could not agree more! This monolithic treatment of Islam is completely and utterly inaccurate and misleading.
Amarasingam begins his conclusion stating that his ‘paper has argued that insights gleaned from social psychology – particularly the fundamental attribution error, out-group homogeneity bias, etc. – are especially useful for critiquing the new atheism’ (585).
As I began this post, so I will say again… yes within the context of social psychology it is definitely okay to make this sort of critique. However, I ask once more: how appropriate is it for a religious studies scholar to be critiquing the position of a group of people who are essentially articulating their position on religion?
That being said, Amarasingam has a point when he cites McGrath and Collicutt McGrath (although the majority of their book is utter twaddle), who state that (2007, 22, 50):
‘similarly note that one of the main characteristics of the new atheism is its presentation of ‘‘the pathological as if it were normal, the fringe as if it were the center, crackpots as if they were mainstream. It generally works well for his intended audience, who can be assumed to know little about religion and probably care for it even less. But it’s not acceptable. And it’s certainly not scientific.’’’ (586)
Drawing attention to another Youtube interview, this time between Richard Dawkins and Richard Harries, Amarasingam finds Dawkins confused by Harries’ liberal stance on Christian dogma. On hearing about this, ‘Dawkins responds: ‘‘This, of course, is all music to my ears, but I’m kind of left wondering, why you stick with Christianity at all!’’ Harries (YouTube, 2008a) rightly responds that perhaps Dawkins has spent too much time in fundamentalist circles’ (586).
It is a point…
Amarasingam, Amarnath. 2010. To Err in their Ways: The Attribution Biases of the New Atheists. Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 39, no. 4: 573-588.
Dawkins, Richard. 2007. The God Delusion. London: Black Swan.
Ericksen, Robert P., and Susannah Heschel, eds. 1999. Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Harris, Sam. 2006. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. London: The Free Press.
McGrath, Alister, and Joanna Collicutt McGrath. 2007. The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the denial of the divine. London: SPCK.
This is just a really quick post to point you all in the direction of the “Faith Guides” provided by The Higher Education Academy: Subject Centre for Philosophical and Religious Studies.
Although they are designed to give “information to staff in the higher education sector on how best to support students with a variety of religious beliefs”, each guide starts with a proper academically researched introduction to six major “faiths” represented in Great Britain.
I haven’t read them yet myself, but I shall be printing them when I get home. It may turn out that I disagree with something in there… and if I do I shall let you know. But, for now, I think it is a great idea that they have produced these guides, and that they make them freely available on their website.
I hope you find these interesting/useful.