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Byproducts of the War on Terror in Biblical Scholarship

By James Crossley
Department of Biblical Studies
University of Sheffield, UK
May 2010

The cultural prominence of two phenomena – conservative Christianity and an emboldened atheism – has been clear enough this past decade. Unsurprisingly, September 11 was a significant moment. Days after September 11, Richard Dawkins tried to explain the murderous actions behind the tragedy purely in terms of “religion” (Guardian, September 15 2001). Related arguments, including a certain condoning of torture in the name of reason, were developed by high profile atheists (e.g., Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Martin Amis) and this collection gained the now famous label, “New Atheism.” Put bluntly, the emphasis on “religion” as the cause of all things bad has the unfortunate, but ideologically convenient, function of masking and deflecting all the complex socio-economic and geo-political issues underlying war and terror.

New Atheism gave rise to an equally productive mini-industry designed to counter its claims. This is no surprise because a radical form of conservative Christianity, developing since the 1970s, had become perhaps more culturally significant. Think of Karl Rove’s Republican “base,” Intelligent Design, hostility towards anything deemed secular, and, lest us forget, (inaccurate) claims that poor old Christmas cards are no longer religiously themed. Like some of the New Atheist arguments, this “religious versus secular” discourse itself has its own masking and deflecting function from anything economic and complex.

These days we should hardly be surprised that cultural and historical contexts profoundly influence scholarship. A number of scholars are now openly defining themselves or others as “secular,” “atheist,” or “agnostic,” and related work has received a notable degree of scholarly and public attention (e.g., Jacques Berlinerblau, The Secular Bible, Hector Avalos, The End of Biblical Studies), alongside the media presence of Bart Ehrman whose agnosticism explicitly informs his work. On the other side, and in addition to a mini-industry countering anything too atheist-liberal sounding in biblical studies, we have major academic books right at the heart of mainstream biblical studies, something perhaps unthinkable when Bultmann cast a long shadow. Three of the biggest publications in New Testament studies over the past ten years have promoted some highly conservative arguments: Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2006); Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ (2003); and N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003), which goes as far as arguing for a supernatural explanation for the resurrection and the emergence of the Christian movement.

As a sign of the times we might look at collaborations comparatively. I co-wrote a book with the conservative evangelical scholar Michael Bird which involved a believer and non-believer debating Christian origins. It is notable that a parallel book a decade earlier was an intra-Christian debate between a liberal Christian (Marcus Borg) and a conservative Christian (N.T. Wright). Not dissimilarly, the attempt to run the Jesus Project, with its notable atheist and rhetorically “scientific” backing and connections (Scientific Examination of Religion and the Center for Inquiry), was, in its own rhetoric, a kind of alternative to the more obviously liberal Christian Jesus Seminar, the latter being so last century.

This past decade has also seen the rise of views which are peculiar in terms of the recent history of mainstream scholarship. Take, for instance, the idea that Jesus did not exist; at first sight this may still seem a little “out there.” While this rise has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of the Internet and its more conspiratorial tendencies, there have been rumblings on the fringes of academic New Testament study (e.g., Thompson, Price). Whatever we make of the realities behind the ill-fated Jesus Project, it could not disentangle itself from claims that it was going to test whether Jesus existed and, among plenty of “conventional” fellows, those of a more mythicist bent were at the very least a vocal presence.

Alternatively, we might look at Wright’s work on Christian origins, which is effectively the equivalent of Intelligent Design in biblical scholarship: everything can be explained rationally and this includes the supernatural as an explanation for historical change. That said, there is the impression of irrationality some have associated with aspects of postmodernity (and Intelligent Design for all its scientific rhetoric): will we ever forget Wright’s argument that the dead saints of Matthew 27.51-53 might be an accurate recording of events because “Some stories are so odd that they may just have happened. This may be one of them, but in historical terms there is no way of finding out” (Wright, Resurrection, p. 636)? This sort of reasoning takes historical analysis to a new world of fairies and Elvis sightings, does it not?

To highlight the (bigamous?) marriage between the mainstream and conservative approaches, we need only turn to John’s Gospel, traditionally deemed to be the most unlikely resource for understanding the historical Jesus but which has made a recent comeback. Maybe this is not too unusual but, in the largely conventional revisionist approaches of the John, Jesus, and History project, we find an article by Ben Witherington III who claims that Lazarus, after being raised from the dead, wrote the bulk of John’s Gospel (‘What’s in a Name?’, in Anderson, Just, and Thatcher [eds.], John, Jesus, and History, Volume 2, pp. 209-212). Blue skies thinking though that may be, some readers might find Witherington’s suggestion that John of Patmos edited the final version even more difficult to accept.

Sometimes the output of prominent scholars is clearly tied in with some of the agendas of either New Atheism or conservative Christianity. Not dissimilar to the ways in which New Atheism can blame “religion” and deflect uncomfortable issues surrounding violence and religion, Gerd Lüdemann discussed, in two articles on Christian origins published in Free Enquiry (2006, 2007), the dangers of Christian violence and intolerance for the modern world, the role in which Christianity has played in wars and the deaths of millions, as well as the importance of historically debunking Christian claims. Thus, the argument goes, no reasonable person ought to believe in stories about the resurrection. Wright, for his part, continues a relentless critique of the Enlightenment, a development of a theocratic world view centered on the resurrection and a flirtation with a third way between Darwinism and something resembling Creationism or Intelligent Design with his insistence on the “need” for a “primal pair.”

I certainly am not saying all the above scholars have nothing to offer or that they are necessarily wrong in what they say (after all, I include myself in all this and I tend to think I’m right). On the contrary, I would happily pilfer much of the work from most of the above scholars to a lesser or greater degree. I am not saying that the above necessarily believe personally that religion causes all wars, that the Enlightenment is evil, and so on: scholars are perfectly capable of perpetuating agendas without knowing it. Cultural context does not explain everything but it does explain why some of these distinctive issues have come to academic prominence over the past decade.

Perhaps ten years from now we might be talking about how the recession has had an impact on biblical studies – we already know it is having an effect on academic institutions and, as a couple of recent Bible and Interpretation articles have pointed out, biblical studies may well be a potentially threatened subject. If any (admittedly limited) good is to come from these bleak economic times, it might be that some people take seriously the idea that economics really does have a profound impact on historical change and that there is far, far more to historical change than the not-always-helpful idealist and at times convenient notions that religion causes all wars, secularism is responsible for all that is bad, people rising from the dead might explain things, once dead people writing books, and people not really existing or really existing. After all, was not money (or a lack of it) partly behind the fall of the Jesus Project at the height of the recession?

Comments (9)

Maybe it is not an economic problem. Maybe it is that the scholarship is lacking funds because of the discovery of the dirty secret that Xtianity is corrupt at it's very soul. The world may not want to fund scholars that stand in the face of logic, science, and archeology that prove there was a Torah observant Jew that taught his students, and anyone else wishing to follow him, that they must keep Torah. After finding his bones in Talpiot in a Jewish tomb with his Jewish brother (also Torah observant) they might just be rethinking the whole hocus-pocusness of Xtianity. After all the bones didn't fly up to heaven. Maybe they are seeing Paul's idea's for what they were, the typical charismatic charlatan that they can see on TV. Ever consider what "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," meant to a Jew who was listening? Don't kid yourself. It was Jews listening to him not a bunch of white non-Jews. Face it. The Mashiach's mission was to call the Jews back to Torah. The fiction of JZeus is the polar opposite of the flesh and blood man. Who would continue funding the hoax?
#1 - אליהו קאן - 05/12/2010 - 11:47

"Biblical scholarship" - now there's a fine oxymoron.
#2 - Kieran - 05/13/2010 - 02:20

Ah, if only there were pots of gold for people who argued such things - I'd be a very rich man...
#3 - James Crossley - 05/13/2010 - 07:55

"Put bluntly, the emphasis on “religion” as the cause of all things bad has the unfortunate, but ideologically convenient, function of masking and deflecting all the complex socio-economic and geo-political issues underlying war and terror."

I can't comment on your opinion of most of the authors you've mentioned here, but I have read Sam Harris. To me, he makes very compelling arguments that expressly takes into account socio-economic and geo-political issues. And he certainly does not claim all things bad come from "religion" as you've implied. For example, pollution is bad, but neither Sam Harris nor anybody in their right mind would attribute that to religion.

There are always going to be some bloggers and scholars who can and do put out thousands of words per day of glib, inaccurate observations that are of little use or interest to anyone. What I would really like to read from an academic like yourself is why you think Harris has glossed over certain issues. What is your evidence? There is certainly a dearth of good commentary when it comes to Harris' works. If you can come up with something insightful, intellectually honest to say about the so-called new atheists, it would be most welcomed.
#4 - Alex Fang - 05/13/2010 - 14:36


It is something I have discussed before, thought whether it is insightful...

However, I'm afraid I have what I suspect is a different take on Sam Harris. His is a form of of the 'religion is the cause of all conflict (or whatever)' argument though modified in the sense that Islam is at the heart of all sorts of problems (I wouldn't take all things bad too literally here - I was being slightly ironical with reference to terror and conflict). He says ‘were democracy to suddenly come to these countries, it would be little more than a gangplank to theocracy…the only thing that currently stands between us and the rolling ocean of Muslim unreason is a wall of tyranny and human rights abuses that we have helped to create' and 'we cannot merely force Muslim dictators from power and open the polls. It would be like opening the polls to the Christians of the fourteenth century.’ He has plenty of things like this such as ‘If Muslim orthodoxy [?] were as economically and technologically viable as Western liberalism, we would probably be doomed to witness the Islamification of the earth...There is no reason to believe that economic and political improvements in the Muslim world, in and of themselves, would remedy this.’ (See Harris, End of Faith, pp. 128-34)

Harris certainly acknowledges economic problems but he ultimately and vigorously claims that this thing 'Islam' is at the heart of the problem and economics cannot really explain, so Harris argues, violence. To add another 'ultimately', ultimately Harris has to follow his logic and reluctantly admit that human rights abuses are one of the only ways to curb this mysterious force. End of Faith does not discuss numerous economic and geopolitical arguments, other than admitting that things are bad.

I think this is very similar to Dawkins' response to Sept 11, though Dawkins is more general in his use of 'religion'.

I should add that on one level, I am only explaining why trends are as they are in biblical/NT studies. But on another level, and I say this as a non-believer, I really (and obviously) don't like this trend in New Atheism because I think it is a little too convenient.

Does that help?

#5 - James Crossley - 05/13/2010 - 18:22


Thank you for responding.

First off, I would like to say that I do understand that you were commenting on the current state of biblical studies, and I do understand you were being "slightly ironic." Unfortunately, "slightly ironic" and "I was actually talking about something else" appears to be the dominant tone of critique out there when it comes to the so-called new atheists. There are numerous news articles, book reviews, blogs, commentary and other articles whose main discussion is something else, but mention the new atheists (mainly Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett) as if they were this monolithic group, only to misrepresent their views in a "slightly ironic" manner as you did. Here is just one choice sample:

This article is a PR release to promote a new book, not to talk about new atheism per se. But it states: "New" Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are doing their best to depict all religion as dangerous and Christianity included.

We both know this statement is not true. Harris does not to depict “all religion as dangerous.” In fact, he specifically argues Jainism’s propositions are fundamentally peaceful and nonviolent. Do I think whoever wrote this PR release cares? No. Do I think there is a big difference between your “slightly ironic” comments and the way this self-serving PR release portrays new atheists? Not really.

Getting back to your point regarding Harris’ take on Islam, I have to agree with you that his conclusions perturb some of our deeply held values and beliefs, such as the freedom to worship, the immorality of torture, and the moderating effect of democracy. But how he reaches those conclusions regarding Islam is, to me, hard to assail. I think one of the reasons why the authors like Harris are so well received is because they certainly appear to have covered most if not all of their bases. Another reason is that every few months there is another item in the news about some homegrown Muslim coming from the United States, UK, or Western Europe trying to blow up a plane, trying to bomb Times Square, threatening/murdering cartoonists in the name of Islam, etc. 9/11 was just the start.

Yes, you and I have a different take on Harris’ work. But many readers like myself are open to good evidence and arguments. If you think that Harris’ take on Islam (or Christianity) ignores numerous economic and geopolitical arguments, I welcome you--especially because you are well situated to do so--to assert those arguments and justify them.

#6 - Alex Fang - 05/14/2010 - 18:15


I'm not sure your 'slightly ironic' reading is fully accurate. The context was terror and violence and I think Dawkins and Harris do go for a very general argument about religion causing terror and violence (or a form of religion - I know about Harris on non-Islamic religions but his argument is effectively the same: for 'religion' read 'Islamic religion').

As an aside, I would like to see a serious (and I mean serious) treatment of what 'religion' actually is in New Atheism - it is a notoriously difficult term to pin down, define and attribute a precise causal function.

So, then, we are back to the basic issue, what causes terror and violence? Dawkins, no matter how much we want to qualify his work, wrote explicitly days after Sept 11 (in the Guardian) that religion effectively caused it. Sam Harris, admits poverty is an problem, but only Islamic religion can explain why such things happen. This is a very simplisitic explanation of a very complex problem. Yes, it is certainly one thing to wrongly attribute arguments to any New Atheists but I think religion (or form of,) as prime causal factor for terror and violence actually is explicit in the work of (say) Dawkins and Hitchens.

What other explanations could we give? Well, many connected explanations have been given by various experts on the situation (ignored by Harris and Dawkins). These include: imperialism in North Africa and the Middle East,the dangerously growing world of urban slums typically in Muslim dominated cities coupled with an educated but displaced middle class, the effects of the petro-crash in largely Muslim areas, the particularities of Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia, US involvement in Saudi Arabia (most of the Sept 11 hijackers were Saudi Arabian), western support for some vicious dictators, imperialist nurturing of once minority Islamic 'fundamendalism' and the decline of secular nationalism, Palestinian issue and the failure of Oslo, the failures of Arafat and the PLO, the population growth rate among Palestinians in some extremely harsh conditions, the devastating sanctions in Iraq and so on. What we should not forget is that Islamic 'fundamentalism' of the sort usually spoken of these days is a largely modern phenomenon (if you look at some of the footage from 50 years ago in, say, Cairo or Palestine, it doesn't look like many people were particularly 'religious' in a sense we might use the term). Harris has no serious discussion of this being a particularly modern phenomenon because he has violence and non-reason at the heart of Islamic religion.

To some extent this 'funadamentalism' is a reaction to a whole host of these complexities which are a combination of both general issues facing people across the planet but also specific issues facing Muslim dominated areas. From this, all sorts of problems surrounding terror and violence have grown in all sorts of directions and picked up by all sorts of people in a range of geographical areas, justifying actions by reference to fellow Muslims suffering who in turn are suffering due to a host of complex issues. To boil things down to 'relgion' or some form of religion does not help understanding as if were would just remove this thing 'religion' and the things would be considerably better.

I should add that I am aware that there are differences among New Atheists and that their atheism isn't necessarily all that new. When people point this out, I have no disagreement. What I would re-emphasise, though, is that this group of atheists and likeminded people have had heightened cultural prominence over the past ten years. In this context, I think the label New Atheism is fair and why there is so much interest and attention is due, partly, to the war on terror and a reaction to the prominence of evangelical Christianity.

#7 - James - 05/15/2010 - 15:08


It is certainly important to interpret words in their proper context. However, in the context of the first paragraph of your column, your message comes across like a faulty syllogism.

New Atheists (like Harris) claim “religion” is the “cause” of “all things bad.”

9/11 (terrorism and violence) is “bad.”

Therefore, New Atheist claim 9/11 is caused by “religion.”

Obviously, this is not what you meant. But in context, this is certainly not a far-fetched reading of what you wrote.

Like the word art, the vast array of different of religions—extinct and extant--certainly makes the word “religion” difficult to define. But I don’t think this is important question for Harris or other new atheists, because (1) everyone knows what they are talking about and (2) the problem with religion isn’t so much that they exist, but rather people have faith in them. And I think Harris does a good job of defining “faith.” Here is an excerpt of a discussion between Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris on Beliefnet

Where I think we disagree is on the nature of faith itself. I think that faith is, in principle, in conflict with reason (and, therefore, that religion is necessarily in conflict with science), while you do not. Perhaps I should acknowledge at the outset that people use the term "faith" in a variety of ways. My use of the word is meant to capture belief in specific religious propositions without sufficient evidence-prayer can heal the sick, there is a supreme Being listening to our thoughts, we will be reunited with our loved ones after death, etc. I am not criticizing faith as a positive attitude in the face of uncertainty, of the sort indicated by phrases like, "have faith in yourself." There's nothing wrong with that type of "faith."

Good enough?

Getting back to your main point of discussion, I agree with you that Dawkins and Harris claim Islam’s specific propositions are one of the prime factors of modern terrorism. And it is true they have not tackled every economic and geopolitical issue you have listed. As I recall, however, Harris does make a good point regarding Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Harris asks where are the Christian Palestinian terrorist bombers? They apparently suffer the same type of economic and geopolitical oppression as their Islamic counterpart. But, Harris claims, the Palestinian suicide bombers who have attacked Israel are all Muslims. Assuming Harris’ claims on this point are true, it cuts through a lot of the complexity to reveal the heart of the problem: Islam warrants violence. Harris also makes the similar claim regarding the lack of Tibetan suicide bombers in China.

While the economic and geopolitical problems you’ve listed are complex problems in of themselves, it is not a good reason to criticize the new atheist for ignoring those issues in their analysis. The burden is upon those experts you mentioned to justify those economic and geopolitical issues as both relevant and dominant factors for terrorisms.

The way to test Harris’ claim is to focus on two similar groups of persons of different religious backgrounds and examine if they react differently under the same economic and geopolitical pressures. For example, if new research reveals that one of the 9/11 bombers was actually a devout Jain from Saudi Arabia, then that would help undermine Harris’ claims. It is not enough to say the new atheists are ignoring this or that complex issue without finding a way to test their real impact.

Perhaps such research is already out there. I don’t know really know. If you do, however, please point them out.

#8 - Alex Fang - 05/16/2010 - 18:25

Alex wrote: "Harris also makes the similar claim regarding the lack of Tibetan suicide bombers in China. "

But the Tamil Tigers were the real trendsetters, arguably inventing the suicide belt. They're not Muslim.
#9 - Jon H - 08/19/2010 - 23:23

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