Skip to: Site Menu | Main content

Six Anti-Secularist Themes: Deconstructing Religionist Rhetorical Weaponry

Six Anti-Secularist Themes: Deconstructing Religionist Rhetorical Weaponry

See Also:
The Sackgasse of A-Theistic Biblical Studies
Knowledge and Power in Biblical Scholarship
In Praise of Biblical Illiteracy

By Hector Avalos
Iowa State University
November 2010

Spirited debates in scholarly fields usually involve a mixture of substantive argumentation and rhetorical weaponry. Rhetorical weaponry is intended to detract from the real substance of arguments as well as to appeal to the emotional side of the audience. Rhetorical weaponry and substantive arguments are not always easily distinguished, and participants may sometimes be unaware of the difference.

Here, I concentrate on the rhetorical weapons that are being deployed by religionist biblical scholars against efforts to reform the field of biblical studies so that it might function like all other fields in modern academia---a completely secular enterprise with methodological naturalism at its core.

These rhetorical weapons may be seen as literary tropes or themes insofar as they depict fictional, rather than actual, villainy on the part of secularists. The purpose of these tropes and themes is to marginalize secularists rather than to address real arguments. They represent creative versions of the ad hominem fallacy.

Secularists as Fundamentalists

According to many anti-secularists, secularist biblical scholars are no different from religious fundamentalists insofar as they believe that they are correct and all other positions are wrong.

Historically there has been an expansion in the semantics of “fundamentalist,” which first was a self-designation for Christians who believe that certain doctrines (e.g., Virgin Birth) were “fundamental.” The word has since also been used to describe people regarded as extremists, regardless of religion (e.g., Islamic fundamentalists).i

However, “fundamentalist” is often applied to secularist scholars simply because they are certain that their position on a particular issue is true and all others are wrong. For example, Carol Newsom, a professor of biblical studies at Emory University, observed the following about The End of Biblical Studies in her recent panel review:

Fundamentalism is not simply a commitment to certain beliefs; it is also a way of thinking. Avalos appears to have left behind the content of fundamentalism but not its modes of thought. One can see this above all in the black or white, all or nothing framing of his approach.ii

But this use of “fundamentalist” applies to everyone who thinks they are certain about any particular issue.

Indeed, this type of thinking is normal for anyone who accepts the Aristotelian excluded middle. For it is logically necessary that if I think “X is true,” then I am going to think “Not-X is untrue.” That is why the charge that secularists are fundamentalists is eventually logically incoherent or inconsistent because everyone who is certain that any particular claim is true is subject to the same charge.

So, even those persons who are certain that secularists are fundamentalists must think the opposite claim is wrong (secularists are not fundamentalists). Thus, the anti-secularists could be characterized as “fundamentalists” themselves insofar as they are certain their conclusion is right and all others are wrong on that issue.

Omnifideism for Everyone

Omnifideism refers to the idea that all worldviews and approaches are ultimately based on faith and so deserve equal validity as scholarly methods. Science is as much faith as is theology, and so we should allow theological approaches at the Society of Biblical Literature and in biblical scholarship in general.

But no other field in public academia defines “faith” in that manner. Indeed, by this omnifideist logic, these two claims deserve equal treatment:

A. Undetectable Martians wrote Genesis

B. The Society of Biblical Literature is meeting in Atlanta in 2010.

The first is unverifiable to our five senses and/or logic. The second is verifiable once we have defined our terms (e.g., SBL, Atlanta, 2010).

The first is not amenable to scientific investigation; the second is.

Yet, both would be given equal weight under omnifideism.

What is true is that all faith-claims are equally unverifiable, and to say that Yahweh was involved in history is no more verifiable than to say Zeus was involved in history.

That is why methodological naturalism is essential to modern science. According to my definition of science in the New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible,

[m]ethodological naturalism, which refers to the idea that only natural causes should be used to explain natural phenomena, also is an essential part of modern science.iii

In sum, faith involves beliefs not based on evidence verifiable to one or more of the five senses and/or logic. Science involves conclusions based on evidence verifiable to one or more of our five senses and/or logic. There is a difference.

The Exclusivist Theme

Aligned with omnifideism is the trope of the secularists who wish to exclude others from the academy. That exclusivism is seen as close-minded and fascist. Apparently forgotten is that Jesus seemingly advocated similar exclusivism in Matthew 12:30 “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters” (RSV).

Usually, the diversity of approaches in other fields is adduced as contrastive examples. Thus, we hear about postcolonialism, Queer readings, and Marxist hermeneutics as examples of inclusivism while secularists are somehow exclusivist when it comes to the use of theological approaches in biblical studies or within the Society of Biblical Literature.

Thus, J. Edmund Anderson, in responding to Ronald Hendel’s recent objections to the religionism in the Society of Biblical Literature, comments:

Let’s also look at the various Feminist and LGBT/Queer papers and seminars that are a part of SBL and AAR as another example...I’m not about to renounce my membership simply because I happen to disagree with SBL for allowing them a say. I just choose not to attend the specific meetings at the SBL annual conference that focus on Feminist and LGBT/Queer readings of the Bible. I think they are unscholarly and uncritical—but that doesn’t mean that the entire SBL is unscholarly and uncritical.iv

But none of these examples of diversity renounce methodological naturalism, and so they are not at all analogous to theological approaches per se.

In addition, these religionists miss the fact that the humanities do exclude precisely what secularists wish to exclude in biblical studies. No other area of the humanities that I know includes supernaturalism as part of its explanatory panoply. Despite diversity in approaches, methodological naturalism remains the basic paradigm.

Thus, insisting on methodological naturalism in biblical studies and in the Society of Biblical Literature is perfectly consistent with what is the norm in all other areas of the humanities and social sciences. We should exclude supernatural and theological approaches with the same enthusiasm and for the same reasons we do so in the social sciences and in the humanities.

The Angry Atheist Trope

Anger is supposed to be a bad thing, and some anti-secularists often like to paint atheists as angry people. Mr. Jim West, the Zwinglian biblioblogger, declares:

For while Avalos and the angry atheists spend their lives attempting to destroy (and make no mistake, their entire program is destruction.  They construct nothing....v

Usually, no evidence is cited for this “anger” other than one is automatically angry if one disagrees with Christianity or theism. Usually, no specific quotations from atheists evidencing this supposed anger are cited.

In fact, the atheists I know are very happy and content people, and surveys taken of secularized countries, such as Denmark, consistently show them to be the happiest people on

But, even more puzzling is that anger is often valued by these same religionists when it is found in their favored figures. After all, the Bible is full of images of angry prophets. God is an angry deity who can send all sorts of dreadful punishments and inflict bodily harm on those who disobey or disagree with him (Deuteronomy 28:15ff). But these religionists don’t seem to have a problem when biblical figures are angry but only when secularists are angry.

Indeed, a whole book industry that celebrates the angry masculine God of the Bible has been spawned by some evangelical Christians. Its leaders include John Eldredge, the president of Ransomed Heart Ministries (Colorado Springs, CO) and the author of Wild at Heart: The Secret of a Man’s Soul, which reportedly has sold over a million copies since its publication in 2001. Eldredge’s angry God has been followed as a model by some drug lords when they commit their bloody massacres. vii

Finally, anger is not necessarily a bad thing. One has a moral obligation to be angry at the large number of people who hold sacred a collection of books that endorses everything from genocide to misogyny. One should be angry that religionist biblical scholars still use the Bible to draft social policies that made more sense in the Iron Age than in the Computer Age. We should be angry when the Bible is used as an authority to deny loving couples a right to marry regardless of gender or sex.

Of course, it is simply wrong to state that atheists are not intent on being constructive. Atheists have more reason to make this world better because they do not live for an afterlife. Making the world in which we live better on the basis of scientific evidence, rather than on the wishes of some unverifiable being called “God,” is a very constructive way to live.

The Psychoanalysis Maneuver

In Democratizing Biblical Studies, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza makes this observation about my argument for ending biblical studies as we know it:

Avalos argues that biblical scholars must confront the fact that the Bible is upheld as a sacred text that has authority. It is at this second point that the pathos of this argument comes to the fore. He tells us that he comes from a Pentecostal Protestant immigrant home, wanted to become an a biblical scholar to fight atheism, and in the process has come to understand that “atheism was the most honest choice” he could make.

This psychoanalysis really has not much to do with my argument, which centers on the arbitrary and ethnocentric rationales for endowing the Bible with moral authority when there are many other books that could be so endowed.

I usually don’t see religionist authors speaking of the “pathos” of scholars in faith traditions. For example, I don’t see Schüssler Fiorenza speaking of her own religious background as part of “a pathos” that brought her to particular conclusions.

Now, there may be a place for studying how biographies affect the development of a scholar’s thinking. My biography explains a lot of how I came to my conclusions, but my biography does not justify or invalidate my conclusions per se. Merely mentioning a biographical linkage without further precision or documentation suggests the use of a scholar’s biography as a rhetorical weapon rather than as a substantive observation.

Empirically, those who defend the authority of the Bible in the modern world mostly are believers or members of a religious group. So why is it not as justified to posit that self-interest in preserving their own religion is what motivates defenses of the authority of the Bible in the modern world?

The Proprietary Rights Theme

Biblical studies belongs only to the faithful according to this theme.viii Only people of faith can rightly understand the Bible, and atheists have no business studying it. Here is a sample of the rationale behind this theme:

There are historical reasons for this. First, and foremost, the Bible is the Church’s book (and the Synagogue’s) (pace Philip Davies!). People of faith wrote it, preserved it, collected it, and passed it along. Faith is the string which holds the pearls (of texts) together. Atheists and unbelievers didn’t write a word of it, transmit it, preserve it, or pass it along. No one can argue with the fact that the Bible is the book of the people of faith. It belongs to us. Not to the atheists. They are now and have been and always will be outsiders to it. Their point of view, then, is as mere observers. Atheists are to biblical studies what television commentators are to a sporting event: they are off the field, in a booth, secure behind glass, opining concerning what others should have or could have done without ever bothering to take the field themselves.ix

The first thing to note is the self-serving nature of the boundaries imposed by West. He circularly defines the boundaries so as to include himself and exclude atheists, but he provides no rationale for why the boundaries should be what he declared.

For example, what evidence is presented that only those who write and preserve any artifact are entitled to study that artifact? Indeed, who made up the rule that only those who have produced or transmitted artifacts have a right to study those artifacts?

And why not say that only the authors who actually wrote biblical texts have a right to study their own writings? Who would understand more than the author himself or herself? By that logic, West has written none of the biblical materials and has no business pontificating on anything therein.

Clearly, West’s prohibition is not a statement of historical fact but simply a value judgment. As is the case with most value judgments, it dissolves into a circularity: “Only people of faith are entitled to study the Bible because only people of faith are entitled to study the Bible.”

The boundaries are also arbitrary. For example, prior to the rise of Christianity, we could argue that only Jews wrote and preserved what Christians call the Old Testament, and so does that mean that Christians have no right to study the Old Testament? In fact, for many traditional Jews, Christians have corrupted the Hebrew Scriptures, and so why should Christians be entrusted with studying the Hebrew Scriptures all?

And why should “faith” be the feature of the human experience that entitles one to study any book? One could just as easily postulate that we all share the human feature called “imagination” or “creativity,” and so we are entitled to study those books produced by the human imagination or creative process.

Secularists believe that supernatural claims are no less the product of the natural human imagination than any other act of creativity, and so such supernatural claims are no less excluded from scholarly investigation than any other natural phenomena atheists might study.

Indeed, we could broaden the boundaries of proprietary rights so that human production is what makes an artifact subject to study by human beings. Since the Bible is a human artifact, then all human beings are able to study it. The Bible was produced by the same human actions that we can all experience.

That is why West’s sports analogy fails so completely. If I understand West’s analogy, the television commentators in the stands are analogous to atheist biblical scholars while the athletes participating on the field are analogous to faith-based biblical scholars.

But since atheist biblical scholars are not proper observers at all for West, then they would be excluded from observing sports events altogether, whereas in actual sports events non-athlete television commentators have every right to be observers. So, by West’s logic, the proper analogy should not have non-athlete observers at all in a sporting event but only the athletes on the field.

Yet, there is nothing that logically or physically prevents non-athlete observers (= atheist scholar) from studying the rules or actions of the athletes on the field any better than an actual athlete (= faith based scholar) who might also be an observer in the stands.

For example, an athlete (= faith based scholar) in the audience does not necessarily know more about what the quarterback in an American football game is going to do in the next play than a non-athlete observer (= atheist scholar) who might have studied that particular quarterback over years.

In addition, what do you do with atheists who, like myself, have been believers (= athletes) before? Do they lose that expertise when they become mere observers in the stands? Indeed, West seems to forget how many television commentators have been athletes.

Another failure of this analogy is that West equates access to a present phenomenon or event with access to a past phenomenon or event. An athletic event today might entail that the athlete on the field have information not available to the audience (e.g., in a football huddle). But that lack of information would afflict both the athletes (faith-based scholars) and non-athletes (secularist scholars) observing from the stands.

Since most of the participants who wrote the Bible lived in the past, then modern faith-based scholars have no more of an ability to observe those events or actions than atheists do. Conversely, atheist scholars have no less an ability to study the actions of the faithful in the past than do modern religionist scholars.

Beyond Rhetoric

Any progress in the debate between the secularists and the religionists in biblical and religious studies must cast aside rhetorical weaponry and focus on the substantive problems that are being raised to theological and faith-based approaches to biblical scholarship.

Historically, biblical studies provides one of the last resistance movements to a thorough methodological naturalism, especially when we survey what has happened in other areas of the Humanities and Social Sciences in public institutions of higher learning.

Contrary to the objections expressed by many of my opponents, I am trying to save biblical studies in public academia, but saving it requires a thorough reorientation and secularization. Faith-based approaches in biblical studies need to realize that their days in public academia are numbered if they don’t fully integrate with the approaches we find in the rest of the Humanities and Social Sciences.


i See George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelcalism, 1870-1923 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980). For representatives of the equation of “fundamentalism” with “extremism,” see Martin Marty and Scott Appleby, eds., Fundamentalisms Observed (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994) and other volumes of the Fundamentalism Project.

ii Carol Newsom, “Response to Hector Avalos, The End of Biblical Studies; or, What’s A Nice Atheist Like you Doing in a Place Like This?” Unpublished paper delivered to the Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion (Atlanta, Georgia, March 6, 2010).

iii Hector Avalos, “Science and the Bible, “ in Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, ed., The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009), Volume 5: 126.

iv J. Edmund Anderson, Comment #29 (June 24, 2010) in “Discussing Faith and Reason in Biblical Studies,” at For Ron Hendel’s comments, see “Biblical Views: Farewell to the SBL,” at

v See Jim West, “The Blind Leading the Blind” at http://zwingliusredivivus.

vi See Phil Zuckerman, Society without God: What the Least Religions Nations can Tell us About Contentment (New York: NYU Press, 2010), especially pp. 25-29. Also: “An Unlikely Atheist Teaches Others,” Iowa State Daily (November 10, 2010) at

vii For how Eldredge’s book is influencing drug cartel massacres in Mexico, see Hector Avalos, “A Faith-Based Drug Cartel?” at 2010/11/14/ames_tribune/opinion/ columnists/doc4cdf740437555582844106.txt.

viii For another discussion of this issue, see Philip Davies, Whose Bible? (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995).

ix Jim West, “The Sackgasse of A-Theistic Biblical Studies,” Bible and Interpretation (June 2010) at