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Scarce spiritual resources.

Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence BY HECTOR AVALOS (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2005) 444 pp.; $26.00 hardcover

RELIGIOUSLY INSPIRED violence is hardly news to most readers of this review. But, as anthropologist and secular humanist Hector Avalos promises, "this book is not simply another book about religion and violence." Fighting Words adds organization, scholarly research, and coherent theory to the smoke and smolder of other recently published but far less convincing works on this critical and timely topic--other works that often amount to little more than opportunistic rants.

After outlining the history of various philosophies of violence generally and of religious aggression more specifically, Avalos introduces his readers to scarce resource theory--a relatively simple yet sensible explanation of the genesis of violence. Certainly other writers have attributed hostility to competition over scarce resources, but violent competition in the religious context, Avalos argues, is markedly more tragic and immoral because the alleged existence of such resources is ultimately unverifiable and, according to empirical standards, not scarce at all.

Sacred spaces and divinely inspired or otherwise authoritative scriptures comprise Avalos' first and second categories of religiously created resources. Such spaces and scriptures are scarce, he writes, because only some people will receive access to them or because only a few will be ordained with the power to control or interpret them. Group privilege and salvation constitute his third and fourth general categories, neither of which will be conferred on an individual, consistent with major religious traditions, except under extraordinary circumstances. Obviously, all such resources are related and in many ways interdependent.

One could hardly contemplate the concept of sacred space, of course, without donating considerable attention to the subjects of Israel, Jerusalem, the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sherif ("noble sanctuary" in Arabic), and the violence perpetrated in their names by the followers of the three Abrahamic monotheisms. Jerusalem, in fact, has been battled over 118 times and completely obliterated twice. The city has suffered five separate periods of brutal terrorist attacks during the past century alone and has changed hands peacefully only twice in four thousand years. Rebuffing purely political theories of such hostility, and of Zionism as well, Avalos points out that only faith in the Abrahamic gods and scriptures can explain such ruthless and relentless violence.

Then, comparing Pope Urban II's 1095 sermon initiating the First Crusade to Osama bin Laden's 1998 fatwa condemning the United States' involvement in the Middle East, Avalos contends that the West's "war on terror" is seen by Muslims fundamentally as a battle for control over what bin Laden refers to as Islam's "holiest places." According to Avalos, in bin Laden's estimation "the United States is using political and military power in order to carry out what is essentially a religious or anti-Islamic agenda that is aligned with Zionism, which is all about sacred space."

Group privileging is inherent in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), Avalos reasons, because "One obvious concomitant of seeing yourself as chosen is that it instantly creates insiders and outsiders" (emphasis added). In Deuteronomy 23:3, certain ethnic groups are proscribed from joining any "assembly of the Lord." As Avalos surmises, "The repeated notions that Yahweh will conquer the entire world do not differ much from some conceptions of jihad." Indeed, the authors of these sacred texts seem to demand violence as the only appropriate response to religious competition.

But in time, of course, the Jews would suffer similar if not more severe consequences of religious group privileging. In fact, according to Avalos, it was Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, who eventually "spouted forth a plan of action against the Jews that became the blueprint of the Nazi Holocaust." Considering the plethora of textual support and the appalling history, one might easily conclude that Christian violence against Jews was and is a natural, perhaps unavoidable, consequence of Christianity's basic theology: the convictions that Jews were principally responsible for the death of Jesus and that those who are incapable of accepting Jesus as God are doomed to a tortuous fate upon his return.

Unsurprisingly, Christian dogma is saturated with soteriological justifications for violence as well. Consistent with prevailing theology, salvation couldn't possibly occur in the first place but for Christ's suffering and death. Also, as Avalos notes, Paul was actually forced to convert. And consistent with that model, Augustine later wrote that the Jews should be compelled to retain Christian faith once they received it. These elemental Christian ideals--the perceived holiness of torment and affliction and the acceptance of forced conversion--have, perhaps more than any other, rendered Christianity a nearly unrivaled catalyst for organized aggression.

Yet, Avalos reveals, certain passages of the Quran are completely shameless and unqualified in their conviction that violence is "not only an instrument of good" but also "an essential part of Islam" Competition for salvation, religion's "ultimate supernatural prize," leads to absurdly destructive results, including martyrdom, inquisition, holy war, and genocide. Because of its supreme consequence, anything that allegedly impedes its achievement will eventually be subject to attack in one form or another.

Presumably, all serious readers will appreciate Avalos' hard work and discipline in compiling Fighting Words. But dedicated secularists of all habits will be among those to applaud his candor, passion, and refreshing sense of social duty. Avalos encourages us to confront religionists as to their dangerous beliefs and to either assist them in modifying their traditions in such a way as to thwart the maintenance and creation of unverifiable scarcities or to commit ourselves to the elimination of their violent traditions.

From a perspective that is both rational and compassionate, one is compelled to at least sympathize with, if not subscribe to, the author's "zero-tolerance" prescription. After all, as he reminds us, "Nowhere in Mein Kampfis there anything as explicit as the policy of killing Canaanites in Deuteronomy 7 and 20 and 1 Samuel 15" Islamic texts and traditions are no less bellicose. Indeed, history has clearly demonstrated that religionists are both capable and willing to kill consistent with their sacred scriptures and customs.

Finally, reemphasizing that there can exist no "real" version or, conversely, no especially unjustified "perversion" of any religious tradition, Avalos concludes with a warning to the administration of George W. Bush, citing its apparent intent to restrain an allegedly false construction of Islam in favor of a purportedly more peaceful or compliant one. "An effective foreign policy" he writes, "must include an educational program that convinces world citizens that violence about resources that do not or that cannot be verified to exist is against their own interest." Perhaps Avalos is right. But the initial problem implicates the education of the Bush administration.

Kenneth W. Krause and his wife live in Wisconsin along the Mississippi River A former prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, Krause is a freelance writer with degrees in law, history, literature, and fine art.
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Title Annotation:Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence
Author:Krause, Kenneth W.
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Words:1141
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