A Friendly Dialogue With Atheist Dr. Hector Avalos Pt. 1

Recently I had an opportunity to dialogue with Dr. Hector Avalos over an article that he had written posted at the Ames Tribune entitled "Secular vs. Religious Harm" 

Dr. Avalos is an eminent scholar and professor of religious studies at Iowa State University. Dr. Avalos received his Ph.D. at Harvard University 1991, his M.T.S. 1985, Harvard Divinity School and his B.A. in Anthropology, 1982 University of Arizona. He has written many books including  "The End of Biblical Studies (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007), Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence, (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2005), two chapters entitled "Yaweh Is A Moral Monster" & "Atheism Was Not The Cause Of The Holocaust" in the book "The Christian Delusion, Why Faith Fails" by John W. Loftus (Amherst, NY. Promethius Books, 2010)  and most recently "Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship (Bible in the Modern World)" [Sheffield,UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011 ]

It certainly was an opportunity for me to learn, which I did. Hopefully this will help some of you who are minded to become equipped in addressing such issues. This is how our conversation went.

My Initial Response To Dr. Avalos's Article:
"Dr Avalos, you say, "First, he overlooks that some of the wars he cites had significant religious components, and this includes the American Civil War and World War II." Neither of these wars were religiously based wars. There were "components" as you say, but there is a clear distinction between a religious war and a war with religious components to it. That may not make a difference in regards to what you are asserting here, but you should be more clear, that if the intent is to say that secularly inspired conflicts have taken more lives historically, I don't see how you can rationally deny it.
Secondly, you seem to do little to discover the impact of Darwinian evolution and the materialistically inspired teachings of "Origin of the species and favored races" on the prevailing thoughts prior to and during the Civil War period and era. Charles wrote his book in 1859 and the thoughts of white superiority circulated well prior to this. The Civil War began in 1861. You can't tell me that SECULAR teaching that blacks and even women were inferior had nothing to do with the reason that many thought that they were fighting the Civil War. To strip the historical background from the argument is like trying to paint without a canvass. In fact it may even be worse than that if truth is intentionally withheld to bolster an anti-religious dogma."
Dr. Avalos Responded:
RE: “Secondly, you seem to do little to discover the impact of Darwinian evolution and the materialistically inspired teachings of "Origin of the species and favored races" on the prevailing thoughts prior to and during the Civil War period and era...”

Since Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species in 1859, then how much influence could he have had on the Civil War? Could you tell me how many people in America were reading Darwin’s book during the Civil War?  
The idea of the stronger winning out over the weaker members of species did not originate with Darwin, as can be shown by the works of numerous racialist and self-described CHRISTIAN works written BEFORE Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). It was those Christian racist works that were being quoted before, during, and after the Civil War. 
Here are two examples:
1. Robert Knox, the famous Scottish racialist writer, says (Robert Knox, The Races of Men, [Philadelphia: Lea & Blancard, 1850], pp. 38-39):
“Now whether the earth be over-populated or not, one thing is certain---the strong will always grasp at the property and lands of the weak. I have been assured that this is compatible with the highest moral and even Christian feeling.” 
2. John Campbell, a pro-slavery Christian writer, saw racial struggle as an essential part of the history of mankind and he quotes Knox for part of his 1851 essay, “Negro-Mania,” (in E. N. Elliott, Cotton is King and Pro-Slavery Arguments... [Augusta, GA: Pritchard, Abbott and Loomis, 1860], p. 520):
“The antagonism of races is working itself out in every instance where two races are put in collision by the quicker or slower extinction of the inferior and feebler race...Knox has shown us everywhere the white blood treading down and exterminating the darker races. “The Saxon (he remarks) will not mingle with any dark race, nor will he allow him to hold an acre of land in the country occupied by him”...There is no denying the fact that the Saxon—call him by what name you will—has a perfect horror for his darker brethren.”
Moreover, the idea of eugenics can also be found in Christian history and in the Bible, even if it is not recognized by that name. See further my replies to Richard Weikart on these and other issues: http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2008/05/avalos-contra-weikart-part-i-general.htmlhttp://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2008/06/avalos-contra-weikart-part-ii-weikarts.htm
Pastor Burnett Response:
Dr. Avalos, your commentary and references only drives home the point... 
Start at the end, eugenics doesn't belong to Christianity, it is an advent of evolution and a materialistic worldview. Name ONE event or teaching in the NT that used eugenics as a method? The OT references were a matter of eugenics, but that is arguable, but you are talking "Christianity" I suppose.... 
Secondly, the thoughts on racism were prevalent and Darwin's father believed what he believed. So take that back another what, 50 plus years and further?

I'm glad you don't deny the racial and sexist implications of Darwin as he posed his materialistic worldview. Darwin put in a book what others already believed. They didn't believe it because the bible taught it, they believe it IN SPITE of what the bible taught. 
So I can't see that you make a successful case if the intent is to expose the teaching of the bible claiming greater historical atrocities than are found within secularism and for purely secular reasons. The conflicts you mention were NOT over religion nor were they because of religious values...they were SECULAR values. 
Were there racists who called themselves Christians? CERTAINLY! Were there scientists and secularists who were racists? CERTAINLY! So what you're asking is who did the most damage? Secular idealism has NOTHING to brag about on the issue.
Dr. Avalos Response: 

Rev. Burnett,

You offer little or no evidence for your claims, and so they are simply cases of say-so or unverifiable theological speculation.
Let’s begin with your clam that “eugenics doesn’t belong in Christianity.” But how do you determine what does or does not belong in Christianity? Is it what is found in the entire Protestant Bible or just what is found in the New Testament? Or is it what self-described Christians have practiced in history, or just what you think they should practice?
It also seems inconsistent to say that misinterpretations of Darwin count as what you call Darwinism when done by people calling themselves Darwinists, but misinterpretations (in your opinion) of Christianity don’t count as Christianity even when done by self-described Christians.

RE: “eugenics...is an advent of evolution and a materialistic worldview.” False or questionable. You are confusing perhaps the advent of the name “eugenics” with the advent of the concept.
The antiquity of the concept is noted by many modern advocates of eugenics. If by eugenics you mean the artificial effort to manipulate biological or social features through selective breeding, then that concept is quite old. For example, consider the concepts of marriage in Ezra 9:10-11 (RSV):

[11] which thou didst command by thy servants the prophets, saying, `The land which you are entering, to take possession of it, is a land unclean with the pollutions of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations which have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness.

[12] Therefore give not your daughters to their sons, neither take 

their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or prosperity, that you may be strong, and eat the good of the land, and leave it for an inheritance to your children for ever.'
Notice how one reason to avoid such interbreeding is so “that you may be strong.” Thus, the author of Ezra was consciously enacting breeding policies in order to create better offspring. Why don’t you count that as “eugenics”? 
This example also refutes your claim that eugenics “is an advent of evolution and a materialistic worldview.” On the contrary, modern eugenics were simply following concepts found already in the Bible and given for theological/religious reasons. The techniques may have become more sophisticated, but the basic concept was there in antiquity. 
In fact, Hitler specifically alluded to the Bible to justify some of his practices in Mein Kampf (Ralph Manheim edition; p. 249): “it is one of those concerning which it is said with such terrible justice that the sins of the fathers are avenged down to the tenth generation...Blood sin and desecration of the race are the original sin in this world...” 
This is a reference to Deuteronomy 23:2-3 (RSV): 
“No bastard shall enter the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the LORD. [3]"No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation none belonging to them shall enter the assembly of the LORD for ever.
In contrast, Hitler NEVER quoted or referenced Darwin himself for ANY of his policies in Mein Kampf. If I am wrong, please provide a precise quote and citation.
RE: “The OT references were a matter of eugenics, but that is arguable, but you are talking ‘Christianity’ I suppose.” 
I am not sure what you mean here. Is the Old Testament not written by the same god of the New Testament in your theology? Does your version of Christianity not see the Old Testament as a moral authority? 
RE: “the thoughts on racism were prevalent and Darwin's father believed what he believed.” 
You offer no evidence or quotations to prove what Darwin’s father believed, nor how that would mean that racism and Christianity were incompatible. They were not incompatible for most of Christian history. And by the same logic, Darwin was born in a largely Christian culture and family, and so does that mean that Christianity should be credited for his ideas as well? 
RE: “I'm glad you don't deny the racial and sexist implications of Darwin as he posed his materialistic worldview.”  
I made no statements in my Tribune essay about racial or sexist implications of Darwin, and so your comment here is not relevant.

As I point out in my book on slavery, it was Christianity that popularized theological notions of race that made a greater impact on New World slavery than the naturalistic theories (e.g., climate) of human variations that were already being voiced in the works of Pliny and other classical thinkers.

It was Christian theology that helped to popularize notions of human coloration as evil or good. Consider Pope Gregory the Great (540-604), who said: “‘Ethiopia’ signifies the present world whose blackness is a sign of a sinful people.” See further Debra H. Strickland, Saracens, Demons, and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), p. 84. 
RE: “Secular idealism has NOTHING to brag about on the issue.” 
This is a value judgment that depends on whether you think it is better to extinguish real human lives on the basis of commands or beliefs in beings whose existence is not verifiable.

As I pointed out in my essay, such evaluations cannot be based on just comparing numbers, but also on comparing principles. Comparing numbers may simply mean that were less people available to kill at some points in history, and not that religious principles limited the amount of people killed."
To which he added:
Pastor Harvey Burnett,RE: There were "components" as you say, but there is a clear distinction between a religious war and a war with religious components to it. That may not make a difference in regards to what you are asserting here, but you should be more clear, that if the intent is to say that secularly inspired conflicts have taken more lives historically, I don't see how you can rationally deny it.

Your objection is groundless. First, I made it very clear that you cannot separate "secular" and "religious" so clearly in the case of the Civil War and World War II. Note my statement: "Indeed, such divisions between religious and secular are too simplistic when evaluating “harm” from those events." So, how do you wish me to be "more clear"? 
Second, I argued that numbers cannot be the sole manner to compare secular and religious "harm" because all you may be saying is that there were less people available to kill at certain points in history (or in certain areas of the world), and not that religion prevents more killing in principle. 
Third, I offered evidence for the religious component of WWII in the statement by Sanchez. You might also profit from reading Walter A. Skya, Japan's Holy War: The Ideology of Radical Shinto Ultranationalism (Duke University Press, 2009), 
which argues for a link between religion and Japanese aggression in WWII.

So, have you read this book?
And this:
Rev. Burnett,Since your comments are premised on the claim that religious ethics are superior to secular ethics, I wonder if you would provide clear answers to the following questions.
1. Is killing infants always wrong? Yes or No?
2. Is genocide always wrong? Yes or No?
3. Could you provide an indisputably religious principle that would limit the number of people that can be killed for religious reasons?
4. Where did Hitler ever quote Darwin to support his policies? Please provide a precise bibliographical citation, including page numbers.
Pastor Burnett Response:
 Dr Avalos,
You stated:"Your objection is groundless. First, I made it very clear that you cannot separate "secular" and "religious" so clearly in the case of the Civil War and World War II."

This is what I mean. If this is the case, YOU cannot very well say that the loss of life was because of religious means or causes either. You cannot yield the sword solely in favor of your argument when it's convenient to do so. I believe that is called special pleading.At either rate, what you can point to is the fact, that although a biblical basis was used to support racism, there was also a NONBIBLICAL and SECULAR motive for racism as well. Racial bias existed IN SPITE OF biblical teachings on the subject, not because of it.

Look at this, ANYONE could use your book on this subject to justify killing some white folks because of historic racism. Would YOU be at fault for that simply because you record the disparity??? You find NOWHERE, especially in the New Testament (since your criticism is toward Christianity) where God commands racism. If so please provide that to me chapter and verse. 

The complaint that Darwin's book had very little time to circulate before the civil war is not in question. Secular racist beliefs existed well before Darwin wrote his book. Darwin's father was a secularist, not a religious man and Darwin claimed to have gotten many of his views from him. His father was an atheist and racist commensurate with views during his time uninspired by a biblical ethic....So circulation time is no defense that secular and non biblical views on racism had nothing to do with racist beliefs. 

I've also noticed that what you do in general however is broaden the augment to "all religions" and then double back to focus on Christianity as if to say that there is an ethical or moral comparison within the teachings of Christianity to all religions. That argument is not compelling and it is unconvincing if not down right deceptive for reasons that I've stated above. 

Then to your strongest arguments regarding genocide and infant killing being "absolutely" wrong...This is called moral absolutism. I could go many ways with this and the easiest route for you would be a simple yes or no, but you can get my yes or no from the following: 

Let's do a comparative look at who thinks any of this is wrong or who actually believes in moral absolutes...Where is the secular or atheist voice against abortion, or do you believe than a baby invitro IS NOT a person or a human? Then explain what is it? if it is not human.

I ask because out of a Christian BIBLICAL moral ethic, we condemn the more than 50 million baby murders that have occurred since Roe v. Wade. Where is the ATHEIST voice on the issue? Where has it been and why is it not more vocal either way?

So now as the question, who believes in baby killing? Or who believes in genocide?

So if we're asking about absolute moral ethics, I think we can trace the thinking of Christians on the issue for hundreds if not thousands of years. The invention of medical relief, feeding the hungry, bringing relief to those in trouble have been traced to be thoroughly CHRISTIAN inspired efforts historically. That includes relief from those who suffer as a result of genocide and murder of all forms...once again, where is the atheist voice historically on those issues, and more importantly where are the atheist hands in the issue?

So I think that addresses the question. What we find is that atheism cannot say that it believes in absolutism against murder and genocide, because it has been either absent or silent on the issues or at the very worst made excuses that babies aren't really babies or humans. In fact atheist Peter Sanger holds that infant killing is justifiable AFTER BIRTH until about or even possibly past 6 months because the baby has no self conscious awareness. He further argues that the woman experiencing postpartum depression leading to the murder of her infant child should be a excused for this offence based on both her medical condition and infant unawareness. he also stated that he feels the same towards elderly individuals who suffer dementia and who become consciously self unaware.

So tell me, do you believe the vision of utilitarian morality of a growing number of fellow atheists on the very issues that you question me on. There are NO Christians killing babies on mass, nor committing genocide on mass BUT there are atheists arguing the benefits of both...So what is YOUR answer on that topic? 

Finally, if memory serves me correctly, you handled the issue of Hitlers references to his materialistic world view in Mein Kampf in a debate with Frank Turek I believe. I believe Dr. Turek took you through specific references where Hitler without citing Darwin delivered Darwin's materialistically inspired concepts as a basis for his moral beliefs and racism. Nonetheless, I don't believe he (Hitler) quoted the bible as a basis for his beliefs either. Now do YOU have chapter, and page number that the bible was used by Hitler as a basis for racism? More specifically did Hitler quote that Christianity was a basis for his anti-Semitism? Please reference that if you would please. 
I also added: 
You reference to Ezra is highly questionable...This was God's commands not to intermarry because of practical spiritual reasons. The "strong offspring" suggest children that would not be tainted with the nonspiritual practices of the people in the land. This was a primary command and didn't not simply appear in Ezra. You stretch it out of proportion. This was not a command to eugenics, but to spiritual purity.

Further words of Pope Gregory do not account or contend for teachings of Christianity...those are teaching and interpretations that are HIS not Christianity's.

In addition, you mention comparing principles as it pertains to the worldview espoused. I asked previously, where are the materialist principles in real time over the abortion of over 50 million babies? The impact is measurable and tangible. Christianity has spoken to this with disgust and disdain out of a Christian moral value ethic, but what has atheism said? Current atheist thoughts and teachings center around value and utility of individuals including babies rather than their humanity. As I stated Peter Sanger, a leading atheist, contends that babies up to and through 6 months of age POST BIRTH can be killed by their mothers experiencing postpartum depression with no consequence because the child is not self aware. He has also spoken the same of seniors who suffer dementia and who are unaware of themselves. These outline some of the principles of modern materialistic worldview. Neither of these things are value ethics of Christians nor Christianity.

In addition, the Christian moral value ethic motivates individuals and institutions to serve those in despair. In fact the movement to liberate and eliminate slavery was born out of a Christian ethic, and the Civil rights movement within the United States was also born, not in secular society, but out of church and the black church in particularly.... So when we talk principles, we see principles in action that liberate men and women within Christianity and in particularly within the United States. 
As stated, anyone can take a writing, even your's to justify their hatred and desire to kill of anyone, but is that what you (per say) teach, or is that just how your writing are used? Remember, you can't outline practices under Judaism and then teach against Christianity. What is the Christian value ethic?
Dr. Avalos Response:
Pastor Harvey Burnett, 
Your reply contains many factual errors, and one of them is my supposed debate with a person named Dr. Turek. Not only have I never heard of such a person, but he did not do what you claim he did in terms of showing references to Darwin in Hitler's work.

In any case, please answer my questions as directly as possible if you believe that your religious ethics are superior. 
1. Is killing infants always wrong? Yes or No?
2. Is genocide always wrong? Yes or No?
3. Could you provide an indisputably religious principle that would limit the number of people that can be killed for religious reasons?
4. Where did Hitler ever quote Darwin to support his policies? Please provide a precise bibliographical citation, including page numbers.
Pastor Burnett Response: 

Dr. Avalos, 
I admitted I could be wrong, but I wasn't wrong about what was said to you. And if you don't know him, then you don;t know what was said or what his response was to the question. I'll try to dig it out today and get back because that;s a standard Avalos question and it;s been address in debates with you before, so it shouldn't be hard to find and reference.

I've answered your questions clearly, can you answer mine?

Do YOU believe that killing babies and infants is wrong always? and are there ANY materialistic principles that speak to that and why are materialists absent on the issue whereas Christians are not? 
In addition saying there are "many factual errors" and list the ONE with the debate and references to which you are probably aware even if it is NOT Frank Turek doesn't exactly support your statement
Dr. Avalos Response:
Pastor Harvey Burnett ,
I would be glad to answer you questions, but you did not really answer my questions as directly as required.
If you have not provided yes or no answers to questions 1 and 2, then you have not answered those questions. 
If you have not provided an indisputable religious principle, preferably in 1 or 2 sentences, then you have not answered my question 3. 
And if you have not provided a specific book and page number from Hitler's works, then you have not answered my question 4. 
So let's try again:
1. Is killing infants always wrong? Yes or No?
2. Is genocide always wrong? Yes or No?
3. Could you provide an indisputably religious principle that would limit the number of people that can be killed for religious reasons?
4. Where did Hitler ever quote Darwin to support his policies? Please provide a precise bibliographical citation, including page numbers.

 Pastor Burnett's Response:
Dr. Avalos,

I told you that I was unsure about who had delivered information to you, but I knew that it had on this subject. In a radio interview and debate with Richard Weikart on Unbelieveable July 16th, 2011 Dr, Weikhart outlined that the language that Hitler used in his books were almost exclusively out of the Darwinian train of thought at the time in various books as well as speeches etc. He described that population control was a focus of Hitler’s policy which was best described by Darwinism, Hitler uses the term “higher evolution” in Mein Kampf and uses Darwinian thought as the core of his belief and teaching on man’s struggle for existence. He also explained that there were many groups and not just Jews that were targeted by Hitler for persecution and death more readily unexplainable under Darwinian concepts…to all of this you AGREED that Darwinism was influential, although holding that it was NOT more influential than biblical moral value ethics. 
He offered a much more expansive argument stating that Hitler’s ethic was not only anti-Semetic but was also against the Disabled, pro-natalists, and expansionist warfare against the Slovs for example.

Whereas you focused on anti-semitism and outlined that Hitler listed Luther as a hero and Martin Luther had a seven point plan of genocide against the Jews that supported anti-Semitism, to which Dr. Weikart agreed that anti-Semitism preceded even Luther's writing, but that Hitler also persecuted and killed Christian Jews which was something that Luther did not support. But as stated, Dr. Weikart laid out that Hitler’s regime while focused on Jews, was more expansive than Jews or anti-Semitism. 
So far as your questions, which HAVE already been answered let's do this: 
1. Is killing infants always wrong? Yes or No?

Within a CHRISTIAN MORAL VALUE ETHIC, unless one is God, the giver of life, YES!

In contrast to a materialistic worldview which debates the science over whether a fetus is a person, sits silently in the face of 50 million abortions of babies since Roe v Wade, does not address or affirm a sanctity of life either invitro or post birth with many of it's most prominent scientists and leading proponents allowing the death and destruction of infants up to 6 months of age and certain seniors and others mentally disabled based on concepts of conscious self-awareness.

2. Is genocide always wrong? Yes or No? 
Within a CHRISTIAN MORAL VALUE ETHIC, unless one is God, for HIS own purposes. YES! 
There have not been any Christian campaigns to create genocide based solely on scriptural commands and whatever has been done historically by CHRISTIANS using the bible as support has been inspired and directed by men speaking on their own whether pro-porting to be Vicars or not.

3. Could you provide an indisputably religious principle that would limit the number of people that can be killed for religious reasons? 
There is no CHRISTIAN principle that would provide for murder, and none that would provide for killing outside of causes of self defense. So the question is inapplicable.

4. Where did Hitler ever quote Darwin to support his policies? Please provide a precise bibliographical citation, including page numbers. 
Additional information is provided above and the debate itself with specific references by Dr. Weikart can be found here:
I also added:
Dr, Avalos, 
What you do, to a fault is overstate your case as is proven within the Weikart debate. Dr. Weikart agreed that some of Hitler's views weren't exclusively based on Darwin's teachings but he successfully argued and expanded upon the argument without refutation from you that Darwinian principles such as arguments against population growth, the elderly, persecution of multiple races, pro-natalists, and the disabled were prevalent in the Darwinian ethic and presented in Darwinian terms. He didn't make a whole case like you want to make by saying since Deuteronomy was quoted that all Hitler's views belonged to the bible and Christianity in particular. That was a failed suggestion and is an overreach on your behalf in my opinion.

None of those prior stated ethics were Christian inspired ethics but were ethics contained clearly within Darwinistic writings and received, according to Weikart's research (which also went without refutation), from advisers and contacts with persons who rejected and even despised a Christian worldview in favor of a Darwinian secularly inspired world view. As stated, you refuted NONE of those assertions or facts. 
I did notice this, that what you do, is when confronted with certain facts, you simply push back the standard. No matter what is pointed to you use the motif "religion did it first" and simply move the standard back...this is some type of genetic fallacy isn't it??? I know it's disingenuous in debate, because all one has to do is argue, "they did it first!" to relinquish themselves or the impact of their worldview and certain beliefs and actions as it pertains to it. I find it interesting that you take that path when engaging this subject.

Thanks for the link, but I don't need an atheist to redefine what I heard and can hear with my own ears.

I'll take a look at question one and get back with you, because by no means is this my field of specialty if there is one... 
Thanks for your time and I haven't got your book yet but I will very soon."
END OF PART 1 
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