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

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6 Responses to A Manifesto for Secular Scriptural Scholarship ​and Religious Studies

  1. CharlieJ says:

    So, he’s basically calling for what Walter Kaufmann called for in the 1950s. I count the disappearance of Kaufmann from the contemporary atheist arsenal a great impoverishment.
    “Few things are as important for an education as an exposure to the Bible and the Dhammapada, to the Analects and Lao-tze, the Upanishads and the Law of Manu, to Servetus and to Calvin, to the persecutors and the persecuted.
    It is as serious a charge as any against organized religions that they do not provide any education of this sort. They monopolize religious education and, for the most part, make a wretched mess of it. What they offer rarely deserves the name of education.
    A critic of organized religion need not oppose religious education. On the contrary, he may charge organized religion with having done its best for centuries to prevent such education.”
    ~ The Faith of a Heretic, sec. 71

  2. This is interesting and perhaps valuable, but I can’t help but think it misses an opportunity by limiting itself to atheists. Surely there are many religious scholars who could sign onto a letter advocating methodological naturalism as necessary to critical scholarship, criticizing the scholarly pretense of theologically driven pseudo-scholarship, and rejecting the artificial authority of faith-limited institutions.

    • Hey Jon,

      Yeah, I agree that there is a conflation going on in this statement:

      On the one hand, the statement is addressing the claim that New Atheists don’t appreciate the historical and cultural importance of religious scriptures, like the Bible and Koran. This statement is clarifying that a New Atheist can respect such nuances, while still not granting these texts moral authority.

      On the other hand, a call for secularization in Biblical Studies is not just a “New Atheist” concern, but applies to scholarly practices more broadly. Many people can agree with the points above, without describing themselves as “New Atheists.”

      I agree with Avalos’ concerns about the discipline, which is why I co-signed, and I like that New Atheism is getting a makeover to address some of its previous problems. But, I think Avalos could elaborate more on the nuances of what he is calling for here.

  3. C Murdock says:

    The “first wave” of new atheism was a movement for atheists. This “second wave” of new atheism, per the first bullet point on that manifesto, looks like it wants to be a movement only for atheists who are also biblical scholars. I generally like Avalos, but this kind of just looks like him (an atheist who is also a biblical scholar) not wanting the share the ball. If he wants to make a public demand for secular rigor in biblical studies, then I think a less inclusive-sounding name would’ve been more appropriate.

    • Yeah, as I discussed with Jon above, I think that there is some conflation going on in this statement.

      First, I think that it is good that Avalos is calling for New Atheists to acknowledge the cultural and historical importance of texts like the Bible and Koran, while still not granting these texts moral authority. However, this is something that all New Atheists should probably do, not just ones who happen to be biblical scholars.

      Second, a call for secularization in Biblical Studies and Religious Studies need not just apply to New Atheists, but could be shared by other scholars who don’t identify that way.

      I support the statement, because I think collectively that it raises a number of good points. But I also think that it could be separated into multiple, more precise statements, to address these issues with less conflation.

  4. Eric Bess says:

    I hope this gains ground.

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