Hector Avalos has just published a new book. The author of Fighting Words, which deals with religion and violence, and The End of Biblical Studies, which shows how, despite the fact that contemporary biblical scholarship has shown definitively that the Bible cannot plausibly be thought to be a revelation from the divine, and criticises those biblical “scholars” who continue to privilege the biblical text, despite the fact that critical study has demoted it from being a central and pivotal text for our understanding of reality, has taken his forensic exploration of biblical religion further in a book entitled Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship. (It is, unfortunately, prohibitively expensive.) For a taster Avalos has spun out an essay from the book entitled (no surprise here) ”Slavery, Abolitionism and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship: Reflections about Ethical Deflections,” which you can download here. I mention this mainly because of this fundamental point that Avalos makes in his essay:
But despite the thoroughly benign manner in which biblical ethics are often represented, the Bible endorses horrific ideas and practices.
In other words, biblical scholars know that the Bible often endorses horrifically immoral practices, but they continue to privilege the text by diverting our attention from the immoral aspects of the text, and by focusing our attention on ideals which they claim to have extracted from the text, despite the fact that the text itself remains deformed by its support for immorality.
The same, as he points out, goes for the figure of Jesus. Jesus is portrayed as the perfect, indefectible human being, despite the fact that, as a man, he must have been fallible and imperfect:
My project actually began [he writes] with a puzzling experience. If one reads almost any book on Christian ethics written by academic biblical scholars, one finds something extremely peculiar: Jesus never does anything wrong. [original italics]
This is not quite true. It may be observed that Jesus does things that are wrong, but these acts are often justified by the fact that Jesus is assumed to be the son of God, and, therefore, even though wrong to mortal eyes, they have an entirely different character when they are thought to be the doings of a god. In a passage that I have quoted before, the Oxford theologian Keith Ward says:
If one grants the existence of God and the unique status of Jesus in relation to him, these characteristics of his reported life become quite natural and appropriate. [Ethics and Christianity, 28]
That is simply too much to grant. But there is an even bigger problem; for Ward’s response to the observation that Jesus would seem to be “deluded, arrogant and intolerant” should be a reason to believe that Jesus cannot, therefore, have the relationship to God that Christians suppose that he has; yet aspects of Jesus’ character that should lead us to question his divine status are used precisely to establish his character as divine!
Precisely the same kind of latitude is provided in Islam for the assessment of the character of Mohammed. All accounts of Mohammed’s life show him to be intolerant, lascivious, greedy, and cruel. Not only has this fact not diminished his reputation in the eyes of Muslims, these are characteristics of a life that Muslims have been taught to think of as an ideal of life towards which to strive, even though they have had a strong tendency to foster a cult of violence and intolerance amongst a significant minority of Muslims. It is arguable, for instance, as Ibn Warraq says, that
The assassination of Muhammad’s enemies was, unfortunately, quoted as precedents in the traditions and used even in modern times by the apologists of Khomeini wishing to defend his call for the murder of Rushdie. [Why I am not a Muslim, 349]
And what else can lie behind the jihadi compulsion to threaten with death anyone who dares to question or criticise or even to attempt to reform Islam? As we see in the following video taken at the launch in Amsterdam of Irshad Maji’s new book, Allah, Liberty and Love: The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom, members of the jihadi group Sharia4Belgium crashed the launch event and uttered death threats against the author. It seems that the threat of death against those who question any aspect of the prophet’s message, rather than rational argument, is still for many the resort of preference. The effect is to make rational criticism difficult or impossible. Manji may have felt no fear, as she said later, and those gathered to hear the author speak about her new book stood their ground; but scenes like this have become altogether too common. Their association with Mohammed’s own reported character is too obvious to require comment:
Of course, if, as Avalos claims, the fact that the Bible recommends slavery is enough to discredit biblical morality, the fact that the Koran not only commends slavery, but actually gives warriors the right to the sexual services of slave girls taken in battle, discredits entirely the standing of the Koran as a sacred text. It is a manual of hatred and immorality. Irshad Manji’s claim is absurd. There is no relationship between Allah, or any other god, liberty and love. The attempt to show this in relation to the Koran or the Bible or any other so-called sacred text, must fail, because there is simply too much that speaks to the contrary, and, as sacred text, this “too much” will continue to be used to define the character of the religions in which holy books play a central and determining part.
However, the point that I am coming to is this. All known sacred texts are purely human, and, as such, they are shot through and through with immorality. None of them can qualify as holy texts, if morality is any guide to holiness. And since religious believers, as Christopher Hitchens points out, make such huge claims for themselves and for the texts upon which those claims are based, no religion can reasonably claim the allegiance of any moral person. I have said before, and I will repeat it again: Religions do not, and cannot, respect boundaries. Their remit, according to their foundational texts, gives them the right to claim recognition and respect from everyone, and to impose constraints or penalties upon all those who do not accord them such recognition and respect. The reputation of the new atheists as boorish and strident derives largely from the wounded pride of the religious, whose belief in their own plenary understanding of the meaning and purpose of human life is challenged by those who refuse to acknowledge the superior insight granted by religious sources of meaning and truth.
The very existence of those who disagree is an offence to the religious – something that was made very clear after Jerry Coyne’s encounter with John Haught. Haught’s refusal, at first, to release the video was not based on reason, but on wounded pride. His personal insight into the truth of things had been held up to question and mild ridicule. In his objections to having the video of the debate made public, he expressed his dismay that Dr. Coyne did not live up to the standards of academic discourse, but this was not obviously the main issue. The main issue lay in Haught’s failure to show that what he wanted, as a religious believer, to say about the universe, had any rational foundation, or was any more than a pious hope. Even if it were reasonable to say that Jesus was raised from the dead, as Haught claimed, this still wouldn’t have turned Jesus into a blameless or a sinless man, nor would it have changed one whit the problematic character of the history of Christianity in which the values of Jesus play an ineradicable part in contributing to the violence and intolerance of Christians, despite the vaunted insistence that their God is love. The same thing can be said for Manji’s attempt to associate love and liberty with Islam and Allah. To defend Jesus as blameless is to leave the text of the Bible as it is. To claim that Allah is about love and liberty is to permit the Koran and the sacred traditions of Islam to continue to subvert love and liberty wherever their remit is taken to run. Hermeneutics cannot change sacred text. In the end there is no way to reform a (supposedly) revealed religion. After all the criticism and reinterpretation, things remain as they are.
But there is a more basic problem with any attempt at reform or reinterpretation. We do not need visitors or messages from heaven to tell us to value love and compassion. Allah or God or Jesus are irrelevant, and even worse than irrelevant, since they add so many other things besides that love and compassion are often lost in the attempt to apply religious texts to everyday life. There may be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, but the values of love and compassion are not amongst them. And since religious texts so often lead people to act in violent and unloving ways, there is no reason at all to suppose that their central message is about love and compassion. This applies especially to Islam, where it is assumed that the earlier “revelation” vouchsafed to Mohammed in Mecca, which was somewhat more humane and compassionate, is taken to be abrogated by later “revelation”, which originated in response to Mohammed’s failure to convince the Jews and Christians that he was the final prophet, and so tend to be filled with reactive and violent sayings directed at unbelievers and their perfidy.
In their book, Bioethics: A Return to Fundamentals, the authors Gert, Culver and Clouser have this to say about the relation between religion and rational morality:
People count as otherwise rational if they almost never knowingly act so as to suffer any harm without some reason. No rankings that are held by any significant religious, national, or cultural group count as irrational. The ranking by Jehovah’s Witnesses of the harms that would be suffered in an afterlife as worse than dying decades earlier than one would if one accepted a transfusion is not an irrational ranking. Similarly, psychiatrists do not regard any beliefs held by any significant religious, national, or cultural group as delusions or irrational beliefs. 
This expresses the kind of respect towards religion that is a cultural expectation of most religious people, especially by religions that have not encountered Enlightenment, that is, the free study and criticism of all beliefs, no matter how sanctified by time or custom. According to this understanding of religious morality, the ranking of women in Islam, as of secondary and even tertiary importance — since male sons of whatever age are of more value than their mothers — is not irrational, and the beliefs of Roman Catholics that people are sometimes inhabited by demons that can only be defeated by exorcism, is not irrational either, and neither belief is delusional.
This tendency, to put religious or cultural values beyond the scope of rational critique, and to protect them against such critique by threats or acts of violence, by an assumed general consensus, or by claims that critiques of such values are disrespectful, strident, shrill, racist, or in other ways demonstrate characteristics of irrational behaviour, is deeply troubling. Yet this is increasingly being done. Authors of supposedly blasphemous works require bodyguards, journalists settle into a reflexive self-censorship so severe that offences against freedom are scarcely taken note of even by the largest news organisations. Joan Smith at the Independent and Nick Cohen at the Spectator, but very few others, have expressed concern about recent offences against freedom of expression. The current Jesus and Mo cartoon provides a wry comment on the confusion of religion, freedom and racism. A number of blogs and websites have expressed their concern that freedom of speech is in danger. Jerry Coyne expresses his concern in two posts over at Why Evolution is True, A bad week for free speech and More Censorship at British universities. Ophelia Benson, at Butterflies and Wheels, has a whole series of posts on the problem of free speech: Everybody to get from street, Spot the Agenda, Say more good things about Islam please, It has come to our attention that you are wicked, and several others. P.Z. Myers, over at Pharyngula, posts on For shame, London School of Economics, and the British Humanist Society says that giving offence is no crime.
Nevertheless, the London School of Economics Student Union has resolved to define ‘Islamophobia’ thus,
… as a form of racism expressed through the hatred or fear of Islam, Muslims, or Islamic culture, and the stereotyping, demonisation or harassment of Muslims, including but not limited to portraying Muslims as barbarians or terrorists, or attacking the Qur’an as a manual of hatred.
But, of course, as anyone who cares to read it may find out, the Koran often is, precisely that: a manual of hatred. As Ophelia points out, taken altogether the resolution may seem at first sight to legitimise debate about and criticism of religion; however, although it refuses to condemn debate which may be offensive (as indeed it must), it then goes on so to characterise Islamophobia in such broad, imprecise terms as to render debate about Islam as, by definition, illegitimate, so that Islam, as a consequence, is given a unique status as above criticism. And despite the fact that Muslims can in no sense be classified as a race, Islamophobia is defined as a form of racism. The whole point of the resolutions of the LSESU taken together is to make criticism of Islam impossible, thus playing into the hands of Muslim intolerance and violence.
However, if we are not permitted to criticise the religions without the threat of violence, or being denounced as being offensive, racist, morally feckless or having some combination of undesirable personal features, religions will continue their campaign of abridging freedom. I do not think it is just a coincidence that, just at the time that the problem of Muslim identity in Western societies is being claimed to be under threat, Christians have sided with Muslims in their supposed “right” not to be offended, and have added their own concern that they are themselves threatened by anti-religious prejudice and victimisation. These trends in modern Western societies are very dangerous, and should be seen to be so.