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Scarcity and War

Posted Saturday, November 24, 2007 by Charlie Trimm
Categories: Military Issues  

The second paper at the SBL war session was by Hector Avalos, a secular humanist who is also a professor of religious studies (at Iowa State University). He argued against two current approaches to religious violence. One is essentialism (as Ellens had just argued for). This view says that religion in its pure form is not violent, but only a deviant or fundamentalist form. Avalos argued against it by saying that the “true view” is unverifiable and a faith based view, so it is not acceptable. This desire for verifiability was the key weapon in his arsenal and got used on a variety of occasions, showing that he was apparently a logical positivist: the only things that exist are those that can be proved by reason. The other view to explain religious violence is anti-colonialism: the colonized are fighting back against those who colonized them. But Avalos pointed out that Islam colonized the west before the west colonized Islam, and hence this colonial explanation does not work in all cases. So Avalos’ proposal is scarcity: all conflict is caused by scarcity of something. This is certainly nothing new and fairly obviously explains most wars. But his contribution is to use the idea to explain religious conflict: religion creates scarcities and hence creates war. It creates scarcities in the following ways: Scripture (not all writing is inspired), sacred space (one geographical location more important because of religious reason), election (one group or person more special), and salvation (not all are saved). Or for another way of looking at it, verifiability is scarce, so violence is resorted to in order to determine solution. He then discussed five ways to deal with violent ancient texts: accept, reject, relativize, reinterpret, and allegorize. He rejects all of these because they are unverifiable and not subject to reason. His solution? Make the scarce plentiful: give everyone water, for example. He did not explain how this would work in religion, but presumably it would mean that we should make plentiful the scarce by removing any kind of scarcity: either make all divine (make all ground sacred, make everyone saved, make every writing inspired) or remove the idea of religion altogether, which is the route he has taken personally. During the question and answer time he said that verifiability is the key: if the problem is water shortage, we can verify that there is a water shortage. But if it is salvation, we cannot verify that, so we might be fighting over something that does not exist. One question posed to him he did not answer well: what if there is a scarcity that should be present, such as the scarcity of A’s in a class? Should the teacher just give all A’s? He simply said that the teacher would need to discuss that with his student, a virtual non-answer.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007 2:05 PM

Charlie wrote: 

Hector Avalos has emailed me a reply to my post and permitted me to post it. 


Hello, Mr. Trimm,
Thanks for your summary of my paper, which is very accurate and fair.  Let me try to
answer the question I left unanswered: "One question posed to him he did not answer well: what if there is a scarcity that should be present, such as the scarcity of A's in a class? Should the teacher just give all A's? He simply said that the teacher would need to discuss that with his student, a virtual non-answer."

I did not answer it directly because I understood this to be meant as a tongue-in-cheek type of question. But the answer is not difficult under my theory. My theory does not say that all scarcities can or should be avoided.  My problem is mainly with scarcities that cannot be verified to exist or based on principles that are not verifiable.  In that case, people may die for something that is not scarce or cannot be proven to be scarce.

     The grading system in class is supposed to be verifiable, and people agree to submit to this system. That is to say, students join a class fully knowing that As will not be received by everyone, and that their A depends, in large part, on resources whose allocation they can control or at least verify to be plentiful or scarce (e.g., time to study). Disputes can usually be resolved through verifiable means, at least in my classes (e.g., showing a student where their lack of knowledge has resulted in lost points, and lack of knowledge is a condition to which they agreed to lose those points).

     I also would not describe myself as a classical logical positivist, but as a "presuppositional logical positivist," something I explain in more detail in my latest book,
The End of Biblical Studies, pp. 114-15.

     In any case, thanks for your time and effort in summarizing these papers.

Dr. Avalos

Wednesday, November 28, 2007 12:32 PM

Eric wrote: 

I appreciate your summations here Charlie, and the response from Dr. Avalos is very much appreciated.  These are my thoughts on your post.

The problem with concept of scarcity as cause is one of perspective.  Suppose in the example of the student, either party is unreasonable.  Suppose at the conclusion of diplomancy, there is simply no resolution and force is required.  I'm sure this question was brought up, what was Dr. Avalos' response?

 I see three other issues here as well.  First, I'm not at all in agreement that history supports the idea that war was always caused by scarcity.  I believe history indicates the primary cause of most wars to be ideology, rightly or wrongly.

Second is the problem of definition in terms of scarcity.  This is essentially a world wide concept of communism and that concept simply doesn't work because it is based essentially in the idea that all people are basically good and given proper education and environment will be selfless and utilitarian.  This doesn't work Biblically, and it doesn't work given common knowledge of human character.  On this point alone his argument would seem to fail argumentum ad absurdium.

Third is the issue of verifiability.  Dr. Habermas, a professor of philosophy at Liberty University, rightly points out in his classes that there is no such thing as certainty, only a high level of probability.  The concept of verifiability, it seems to me, is based in the idea that an absolute unarguable is possible, and that is simply not the case. 

Friday, December 07, 2007 5:38 AM

Charlie wrote:  These are good thoughts Eric, and I agree with you. The major problem in my mind is the lack of accounting for the sinfulnes of people. He didn't say it, but it seems he is operating with a belief in the goodness of humans. I also agree with your take on verifiability. As far as your first issue, he would say that ideology is a type of scarcity: if you believe anything then it makes a scarcity because someone else disagrees with you. This point is the primary contribution of his book: applying scarcity to religious violence or violence caused by ideological differences.

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