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In memoriam: Hector Avalos — From preacher to atheist to professor

Hector Avalos was a guest on FFRF’s “Freethought Matters” on Oct. 16, 2019 with co-hosts Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker. You can watch it on FFRF’s YouTube channel. (Photo by Chris Line)

Cultural anthropologist, religious studies professor, author and FFRF Member Hector Avalos died on April 12 after a battle with cancer.

He was born in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, on Oct. 8, 1958. His early education began in an elementary school in Mexico and continued in Glendale, Ariz. 

At the age of 7, he began preaching in Pentecostal churches in Texas. At age 9, he gave a keynote address before hundreds of people at the Territorial Convention of the Church of God in Glendale, Ariz., in 1968. And, as a teen, he became a Christian evangelist traveling in Mexico and Texas. 

He also became interested in science as a result of the Apollo missions, read many college textbooks on science in junior high school, and became known as “the boy chemist,” operating a small, well-equipped laboratory in his home. 

By his first year in college, he was agnostic, and then characterized himself as an atheist. 

While a student at the University of Arizona, he contracted granulomatosis with polyangiitis, requiring him to drop out of his degree program in anthropology in 1978. He battled with this disease and/or complications from it until the end of his life. More than once, his medical doctors advised him to put his affairs in order, but scientific discoveries and new treatments allowed him to continue. Dr. Anthony Fauci developed a medical regimen that improved his life and going forward, he was joyous every time he saw Dr. Fauci. 

He returned to the University of Arizona in 1980 and made up lost time. He completed his sophomore, junior and senior years in three semesters. He stayed another year to pursue a master’s degree in anthropology (although he never did finish it).

He was awarded a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. In 1991, he received a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible and Northwest Semitic Philology from Harvard’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

After graduating from Harvard, he moved to the University of North Carolina, where he had appointments in anthropology and religious studies.

Avalos joined the Religious Studies faculty at Iowa State University in 1993 and founded the U.S. Latino/a Studies Program. He was named Professor of the Year in 1996, and he won the Outstanding Professor Award in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in the same year. He was the first recipient (1996) of the Early Excellence in Research and Creative Activity Award, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. 

Other awards included a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers in 2016, and the first Hispanic American Freethinkers Lifetime Achievement Award in Washington D.C. in 2018, and was inducted to the Iowa Latino Hall of Fame in 2019.

He was proud to be one of the few openly atheist biblical scholars in academia.

“Most biblical scholars in academia, after all, are no longer obedient servants of a denomination,” Avalos wrote. “Most see themselves primarily as historians, linguists, and students of an ancient literature. Just as one need not be a believer in Greek myths in order to study them, one need not believe in all, or in any, of the idea and claims of biblical authors in order to study them.”

Adios, amigo

By Dan Barker

Hector Avalos

I met Hector in Boston in 1990 when he was finishing his studies at Harvard. We went to lunch and immediately hit it off. We had both been evangelical preachers in our youth, and spoke the same kind of Mexican Spanish. 

When I told him my story, we discovered that I had preached on the very hillside where he was born in Nogales, Mexico. I was a teenager at the time, and it is not impossible that Hector was one of the many Mexican children who came to hear us gringo missionaries sing and share the “good news” of the gospel. Hector remembers singing some of the songs from the albums by Manuel Bonilla that I had arranged and produced in the 1970s.

But, mainly, we talked about the bible. I realized that Hector had become a first-class scholar. I asked him some questions about the Old Testament. The very first letter I received from Hector, in November that year, is mostly about the interpretation of the Hebrew word ra (“evil”) in Isaiah 45:7. He started his letter with this paragraph:

“Dear Dan, if I were a theist, I might say that meeting you was a product of divine providence. However, like-minded individuals usually seek each other, and that was the case with me. I had seen you before on various television programs, and I knew you would be a good person to contact. You were delightful company.” 

For more than 30 years, Hector was a constant friend, a reliable and generous help in research. Not only did we write promotional blurbs for each other’s work, but he carefully reviewed many of my paragraphs dealing with biblical translation and interpretation. I often changed my writing at his suggestion. He saved me much embarrassment. If I ever had a question about the meaning of an Old Testament passage, Hector was the “go-to guy.”

Hector was a guest on Freethought Radio more than once, where he  talked about his books Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence (June 2, 2007) and The Bad Jesus (May 18, 2015). He was also a guest on FFRF’s “Freethought Matters” TV show in 2019, not long before he experienced his final illness.

When I visited Iowa State University for a “First Amendment Week” event, Hector was the adviser and facilitator for my talk. I heard from some of the students that Hector’s classes on the bible were so popular that even devout Christians, knowing he was an atheist, were eager to his sign up for his lectures.

Both Hector and I eventually said, “adios a Dios.” Now, with deep sadness, I have to say “adios, amigo.”

Dan Barker, FFRF co-president, is a former evangelical preacher.