A Manifesto for Secular Scriptural Scholarship ​and Religious Studies

Recently I signed a manifesto, sponsored by Hector Avalos and André Gagné, titled “A Manifesto for Secular Scriptural Scholarship and Religious Studies.” Avalos is working to start a new movement, called “The Second Wave of New Atheism.” I have never really identified with the New Atheism movement, primarily because Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens aren’t really my favorite authors (I do have a greater appreciation for Daniel Dennett). I like some of their ideas, but mostly I tend to prefer other secular scholars, such as Graham Oppy, Bart Ehrman, Sean Carroll, Shelly Kagan, etc.

The New Atheism movement has also been criticized for not engaging theological and apologetic arguments, and focusing primarily on the negative cultural effects of religion. Likewise, New Atheists have been attacked for publishing popular level books, like the The God Delusion, written by authors who are not experts in some of the relevant fields that they argue about. That said, I don’t have much against New Atheism either. I think that a lot of the critiques of the movement miss the target, since New Atheism is primarily a cultural, social, and political movement directed towards increasing secularization and removing religion from everyday life. New Atheism *is not* a philosophical or theological movement directed towards answering the most arcane questions of philosophy, nor does it even really espouse a particular worldview or metaphysical model of reality.

But, Hector Avalos is now starting a “Second Wave” of New Atheism that I can get behind.

Second Wave

This Second Wave of New Atheism is not just concerned with popular audiences, but is working to unite secular scholars against theologically motivated scholarship and institutions in Religious Studies, Biblical Studies, and other academic fields that are targeted by religious apologetics. The Second Wave likewise acknowledges the cultural and historical importance of religion, without seeking to retain the moral authority of religious scriptures and traditions. In this new movement, Avalos is seeking advocates who:

“Are academically trained experts in the study of religion and sacred scriptures (e.g., the Bible, Quran, and any other text deemed sacred on religious grounds);”

And:

“Regard the study of the Bible, the Quran, and other sacred scriptures as important in understanding western history and modern culture, but without seeking to retain their moral authority.”

Since the demographics described above is one that I belong to, I was happy to sign this new manifesto when Avalos contacted me. Among the goals of the Second Wave of New Atheism are the following:

  • Acknowledge that human ethics need not depend on religion;
  • Advocate the discontinuation of the use of any sacred scripture as a moral authority in the modern world;
  • Work to ensure that professional organizations of scriptural and religious studies, such as the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion, insist on methodological naturalism, and not theological methodologies, in their basic approach to all research presented at its meetings, as is the case with all other areas of the humanities and social sciences;

If you agree with the description above, particularly if you are a scholar trained in Religious Studies, Biblical Studies, or any other related discipline, then please consider signing “A Manifesto for Secular Scriptural Scholarship and Religious Studies.” The contact information to do so is included on the website linked above.

-Matthew Ferguson

Big History: An Introduction

What is big history? This emergent and interdisciplinary field, enriched and pioneered by Dr. David Christian of Macquarie University, encourages a more holistic understanding of human events than does the traditional study of history. While historians are concerned with understanding the past in context, and considering cause and effect in human terms, big historians are concerned with understanding the past not only in its immediate human historical setting, but in the context of scientific and physical laws of nature as well. If history is written by the victor, then big history is written in the stars themselves.

Screenshot 2015-12-20 at 1.39.32 PMDr. Christian, bolstered by the support of philanthropist Bill Gates, first injected big history into the public sector with a 2011 TED Talk, providing an 18 minute overview of world history. In this sensational talk, which has garnered more than 5 million views since its publication, Dr. Christian identifies the basic principles of big history, including the concept of Goldilocks conditions and the various “thresholds” of complexity that we observe in the universe. At various moments in the cosmic past, Christian states, certain Goldilocks conditions have come about, in which “not too little, and not too much” of certain components — usually energy or mass — have allowed the universe to reach states of increasing complexity.

Starting at the Big Bang and the first moment of time itself, Christian traces the cause-and-effect of each moment and identifies these thresholds. He highlights the six universal thresholds of complexity as follows:

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Good News!

I have had less time to write on Civ than I would have liked this year, due to my language studies in Greek, so I thought that I would share this major milestone. I still have more graduate projects to work on, but I also have much more material planned for Civ, when I get around to it. At least I am making progress towards my PhD!

Κέλσος

Screenshot 2015-11-30 at 6.31.27 AMI have received news that I have unanimously passed the Greek qualifying exam in my PhD program! This exam was the last of 11 qualifying exams that I have had to take in my graduate studies (5 in my MA program, and 6 in my PhD program). The Greek exam is, by far, the most difficult (the second most difficult is the Latin qualifying exam, but I consider Latin to be a much easier language than Ancient Greek, and that’s saying something!).

There has been a long journey to get to this point. I began studying Greek six years ago (the year before I entered my Classics MA program at the University of Arizona). During my time there I not only studied Greek every semester, but even took an independent study in Greek prose composition in which I completed all of North and Hillard’s Greek Prose Composition. In addition to…

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Can There Be Empirical Evidence of God’s Existence? Thoughts on Summa Theologica I, 1, vii, Aquinas’ Five Ways, and Miracles

aquinasI have been doing a read through St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica recently, along with Brian Davies’ newly published commentary on the text–Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae: A Guide and Commentary (2014)I’ve also decided to blog some of my thoughts and notes along the way, in order to discuss a few of the differences between Christian theology and metaphysical naturalism. In this post, I will be discussing some of the implications of Aquinas’ theology for the possibility of there being empirical evidence of God’s existence, particularly with regards to how Aquinas describes God as the object of the study of his sacred science (part I, question 1, article 7), and Aquinas’ Five Ways of demonstrating God’s existence (part 1, question 2, article 3).

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New Pages on Civitas Humana!

It’s been a while now that the ‘Recommended Resources‘ page on the toolbar has merely stated “coming soon!”. Sorry that it didn’t come sooner, but now a number of books on topics of secular humanism, naturalism, materialism, cosmology, ethics, and more have been added as recommended readings. This list will no doubt also be expanded with time.

Likewise, the blog series “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism” has been turned into a new page, titled ‘The Metaphysics of Metaphysical Naturalism‘, for easier access at the top of the blog.

Civitas Humana now has a complete toolbar, which addresses multiple issues of secular humanism and naturalism. Just one more improvement to add to this resource!

Onward and upward,

Francis Adams

Are All Norms Moral Norms?

For the next part of my blog series, “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism,” I am going to discuss metaphysical naturalism’s implications for ethics and moral imperatives. Before that, however, I am also going to discuss the meaning of normative statements and whether all normative claims are specifically “moral” normative claims.

boromir-is-oughtA normative statement is a claim that expresses value, preference, or obligation. Words like “should” and “ought,” or “good” and “bad,” or even “beautiful” and “ugly” are not merely factual descriptions of the world, but also include underlying judgements. It can be a factual statement that a piece of art consists of certain colors, shapes, and patterns, for example, but that is not the same thing as saying whether a piece of art is pleasant to look at or beautiful. Normative statements investigate different properties pertaining to objects and behavior. Their underlying meaning is not merely descriptive, but also preferential. This distinction is often termed the “is-ought problem.”

One of the major objections made against metaphysical naturalism is that it is unable to account for the truth of normative claims. In particular, apologetic moral arguments often levy the charge that naturalism cannot account for the truth of moral values and imperatives, and that naturalist metaphysics thus entails moral anti-realism. Whether this assertion is defensible is a question that I will investigate later in this blog series. Before that, however, I want to make some key distinctions between “moral” normative statements and other types of normative claims. In particular, a response that I often get, from both theists and atheists alike when using words like “should” and “ought,” is that such words inherently possess moral judgements. I do not think that this interpretation is correct, and accordingly, I am going to lay out certain types of normative statements below that do not necessarily relate to moral judgements, despite their normative character.

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From Angry Atheist to Happy Humanist: How to Stop Hating on Religion and Start Celebrating Secularism

I deconverted from Protestant Christianity over 5 years ago, right after I began my freshman year in college. It was, I suppose, a fairly typical and drama-free deconversion: I progressed out of the fundamentalism of my childhood, becoming more and more concerned with the verity of my worldview all throughout high school, only to then be exposed to a diversity of new ideas and information in college. I participated in a fairly moderate, non-denominational Christian congregation for the beginning of my freshman year, until eventually coming to the conclusion at my dorm one night, under the stars, that I was, indeed, an atheist.

angry-atheistThe first 3 years of being “religion-free” went by for me with a certain level of ambivalence for all things spiritual. However, in more recent years, I have noticed a less tolerant trend in my attitudes and approach to religion. For a while, whenever I encountered religion or a religious person, I would become frustrated and discouraged, and my mood would be immediately dampened. “Religion in all its forms is backwards, outdated, and just plain wrong,” I would silently say to myself. “Why is it that a majority of people in my culture believe in an anthropomorphized, invisible deity in the sky, when there is so much real beauty, majesty, and wonder in the universe surrounding us?”

This article is not going to attempt to answer that question. Instead, it will focus not just on denouncing the religiosity around us, but on what we freethinking, godless, and sometimes angry atheists can do to better represent ourselves and our worldview, while being empathetic and diplomatic towards believers. I am confident, given global trends towards secularism, plus the truth value of atheism, plus time, that religion will continue to diminish as a cultural force, until it no longer holds the level of normative sway that it currently enjoys in most parts of the world. Below is a list of things to remember that might help atheists and secularists be less angry at religion until then, while also being able to communicate with those who are still very much invested in religious worldviews.

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