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Religious violence a concern of academics too

I want to comment here on some strawmannery from a local theologian/philosopher of religion (Matt at MandM) in his post Religion and Violence. But first two important points:

1: He concentrates on the common perception of a relationship between religion and violence made by atheist writers (he claims these “themes abound in the writings of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens.”). Matt’s obsession with atheists obscures the fact that this theme is also common in academia, and indeed theology. Theologian Alister McGrath, for example, has welcomed the fact that this problem has been brought to popular attention.  And this recognised relationship between religion and violence concerns many people who for governmental or professional reasons have to deal with terrorism and its influence.

2: Any analysis which limits violence and terrorism to the influence of religion is far too simple. Unfortunately this naivety is sometimes advanced by using Stephen Weinberg’s quote:

’With or without [religion] you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.’

I criticised the way atheists sometimes use this quote in my article Sources of evil? Partly because it does lead to them being misrepresented, open to strawmannery.  I pointed out:

“None of these authors [Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris   and Michael Jordan] claim religion inevitably leads to evil. As Richard Dawkins said in a recent Newsweek article ’It would be absurd to suggest such a thing: just as absurd as to generalize about all atheists.’ Nor are they denying the evil carried out in the name of non-religous causes.”

That’s why I suggested that Weinberg’s quote should have really read:

’With or without ideology you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes ideology.’

Bait and switch?

So, returning to Matt’s post. One of the straw men he demolishes is the assertion:

“that if people who hold a belief commit atrocities then that belief is either false or should be avoided by liberal-minded people.”

I really don’t think that is common. After all we condemn fascism for its fundamental opposition to human rights – not just because of examples of atrocities. Nevertheless Matt launches his attack on this straw man with a strange dig at science:

“The belief that the atom could be split is one that has been used to kill thousands of people yet that belief is true and it is an important scientific discovery.”

Leaving aside Matt’s confusion between belief and scientific knowledge (which is important) this argument is a naive bait and switch. Of course a “belief” in, or the “knowledge” of nuclear reactions is not responsible for the deaths in Hiroshima or Nagasaki any more than our chemical knowledge was responsible for the greater number of deaths through carpet bombing of civilian populations in Japan and Europe during World War II (and Indochina in the 1960′s and 70′s) The responsibilities were clearly political and ideological. Human knowledge just made it possible to put into effect these political and ideological aims through such atrocities.

Similarly, simple belief or non-belief in a god (or similar supernatural manifestations) is not responsible in itself for atrocities. However, such beliefs can be used in religious, nationalistic, political and ideological mobilisation to encourage people to commit atrocities. They can be used to mobilise the dark side of human nature, the “them vs us” intuition we are so susceptible to.

History is of course crammed with examples of situations where ideological, political, national or religious beliefs have fueled atrocities. But I don’t know of one example involving a scientific “beliefs.” After all, we have ways of resolving differences between scientists over the nature of subatomic particles. These involve research and investment in devices such as the large hadron collider. Interaction with reality.

Rewriting history

Religious apologists are famed for their rewriting of history. I referred to the specific example of the history of science in my posts  Confronting accomodationism, The Galileo myths and others. So I am not surprised at Matt’s historical revisionism on this subject.

He pontificates on:

“research having discredited the portrayal of the early Middle Ages as ’the Dark Ages’ brought about by Christianity. Similarly, research into Inquisition archives reveal that while such tribunals did exist, many popular beliefs are based on embellishment, exaggeration and propaganda rather than a sober assessment of facts. The picture of the Inquisition that emerges from these studies is significantly more benign than has popularly been thought. . . . The evidence suggests that much of what people believe today about religious history is based on discredited 19th century rationalist propaganda stereotypes and consequent cultural prejudice.”


“many atrocities cited by religious critics were not committed for religious reasons but for secular ones.”

Personally I think that blaming “discredited 19th century rationalist propaganda stereotypes” is another current example of religious apologist myth making.  Often John William Draper’s book History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science is quoted as evidence. But having read that book I can see how selective apologetics quote mining has is.

Historical honesty respects the victims

However, downplaying religious motivated atrocities is almost always accompanied by exaggeration of the atrocities committed by others, or attributing these to atheist beliefs. At least here Matt doesn’t resort to the silliness of calling Hitler an atheist. But he does claim:

“Stalin and Pol Pot persecuted religious groups precisely because they were atheists and saw religion as socially pernicious – the very thing people who press the historical atrocities argument are trying to contend. Richard Wurmbrand, a victim of communist persecution in Romania, stated that ’communist torturers often said there is no God, no hereafter, no life after death, we can do what we wish.’ The fact that atheism was not the motivation for these actions seems to be news to those who actually witnessed them. . . . So, many atrocities were committed on the basis of atheism.”

Matt and others who attribute the atrocities of Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung and Stalin (even Hitler) to atheism do an immense disservice to those who died or suffered in those atrocities. We owe it the victims to be honest about the causes of these evil activities, to understand why humanity does do such things and work to prevent their re-occurrence.  Matt should not be allowed to get away with the distortion that “Stalin and Pol Pot persecuted religious groups precisely because they were atheists and saw religion as socially pernicious. “

A bit of historical research will show that perhaps the largest group of victims of the Stalin Terror were the Communists. The fact that some of these may have been believers had nothing to do with their deaths and imprisonments. A simple figure – more than half the membership of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee were eliminated in the middle of the 1930s! Did any religious groups suffer such a culling? Surely this makes clear that the motives for these atrocities were more political and psychological (the paranoia of Stalin and his cohorts) than anything to do with religious beliefs.

True, the Church’s relationship with the Soviet State and Communist Party was strained. Hardly surprising – this is not the only situation where the church has sided with the old order in situations of social change. But in a situation where every other political group which could have opposed Soviet power were made illegal the regime still allowed the legal existence and activity of the church.

I will go so far as to suggest that many religious believers were members of the Soviet Communist Party. This seems obvious as that Party was the only mechanism of serious social and political involvement at the time.  Perhaps the feared KGB and its predecessors also contained Christian believers. After all Putin, the current Russian Prime Minister who these days wears a Christian cross, was a KGB member.

Matt may be shocked at the idea that there could have been Christian KGB torturers. But many Russian Communists where also shocked when they realised there were Communist torturers. Welcome to the real world. Life isn’t simple.

A fundamental problem wuith religion

Matt is more balanced in his conclusion:

“So the appeal to historical atrocities, on examination, seems often based on a fairly selective analysis of the evidence. The Bin Ladens and Hitlers of this world are clearly dangerous but so too are the Stalins, Pol Pots and secular groups like the Tamil Tigers who pioneered the practice of suicide bombing before Al-Qaeda came on the scene. People fight and kill for a number of reasons; sometimes these are religious, more often they are secular — sometimes both. When people care deeply about something, sometimes they will kill to protect it. Religion is not an exception.”

But this still ignores a fundamental flaw in religion which does make it susceptible to the judgementalism and mobilisation of the “them vs us” mentality which can lead to atrocity. This is the concept of “divinity,” “sacred” and “holy.” These concepts are foreign to atheism and science. it is no accident that the traditional motivations for war and atrocity – “God, King and Country” – have these similar characters.

These “sacred” concepts enable justification of almost anything on the grounds of faith and emotion. Evidence and reason can easily be ignored on distorted towards the divine ends.

This is clearly illustrated by a quote from the farewell letter of a Dutch jihadist:

’In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful,
I write this letter to inform you that I departed for the land of the jihad.
To dispel the unbelievers, and to help establish the Islamic state.
I do not do this because I like fighting, but because the Almighty has commanded this’ ‘Fighting is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it. But you may hate a thing although it is good for you, and love a thing although it is bad for you. God knows, but you may not’

“God knows, but you may not” can be used to justify the worst sort of atrocity.

(This quote is from Paul Cliteur’s book The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism. I reviewed this in Secularism is important.)

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