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7/20/09

Is the Atheist Argument from Religious Violence Cogent?

Richard Dawkins has a unique gift. Although, as his popularity spreads and his adherents increases the gift becomes less unique and spreads like a rabid meme.
His gift (or curse?) is his ability to make clearly fallacious assertions based not on facts but merely excitement, emotion and prejudice.

His adherents likewise have a gift, the gift of un-skeptically, uncritically, incuriously accepting his most erroneous and meaningless statements and repeating them ad nauseum. The thanksgiving offerings that his adherents heap upon him are standing ovations and putting quite a few shekels in the pocketed coffers of the Oracle of Oxford. I chronicled three such standing ovation bouts in my essay, Richard Dawkins and His Amen Chorus of Adherents
(he is actually now retired from Oxford to work full time as an oracle—but from what did he retire?).


One way in which Richard Dawkins has presented this argument is thusly:
Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion. Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition (religious riots between Hindus and Muslims where more than a million people were massacred), no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as “Christ-killers”, no Northern Ireland “troubles”, no “honour killings”, no shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money (“God wants you to give till it hurts”). Imagine no Taliban to blow up ancient statues, no public beheadings of blasphemers, no flogging of female skin for the crime of showing an inch of it. (see Atheism is Dead: From Zeitgeist to Poltergeist, Part 10 of 13)

The argument from religious violence comes to various conclusions:
1) Some claim that religious violence discredits the very concept of God.
2) Some claim that religious violence discredits the whole religion which partook in violence.
3) Some claim that religious violence discredits the violent individual(s) but not their religion, all religion or God(s).

Of course, the first logical question to ask an atheist would be, “Just who are you to bequeath what is wrong, bad or evil?” The oddity with this argument is that it behaves like a bumper-car, whenever it encounters opposition it simply bounces in another direction.

For example, the claim is that violence done in the name of, or premised upon, God, religion, etc. results in 1), 2), or 3) above yet, if you were to argue that atheist have done likewise violence in the name of, or premised upon, atheism the argument is no longer seen as cogent and is discredited by the very people making it by attempts to explain away the action of such atheists.
Well, at this point we learn that no violence has ever been done in the name of atheism. No, not even by atheists who premised their violence upon atheism—which is to say, those who filled the void left by their atheism with whatever godless concepts they chose.

What if you where you to mention the Encyclopedia of Wars (New York: Facts on File, 2005)? This encyclopedia was compiled by nine history professors who specifically conducted research for the text for a decade in order to chronicle 1,763 wars. The survey of wars covers a time span from 8000 BC to 2003 AD. From over 10,000 years of war 123 wars, which is 6.98 percent, are considered to have been religious wars.
Well, at this point the “religious violence” equals 1) or 2) concept is discredited and it is asked just what is a “religious war”?
Suddenly, when the term “religion” is replaced with “atheism” (of whichever sect) the argument discredits itself and we end up where we should be which is pointing out that there are various factors which cause violence, war, oppression, etc. and they must all be taken into consideration. Thus, quite rightly, to state that a war is strictly religious or strictly what have you, is simply too simplistic.

You see, I may retort in ditto like fashion by stating:
Imagine, with reality and history, a world with no religion. Actually, forget imagination and know for a fact that a world without religion would still be a world in strife, pain and suffering due to riches, poverty, territory, material goods/resources, politics, racism, emotions, abortion, sexism, science, rage, jealousy, envy, lust, hopelessness, domestic violence, gang violence, freedom, atheism, natural disasters, disease, insanity, mass/serial murders, drug abuse, etc., etc., etc. In a world without religion we would still have everything that we have today but done in the name of _____________ (fill in the blank). It is no less than astonishing that Richard Dawkins can even entertain such a thought after the 20th century, the most secular and the bloodiest century in human history.

David Boulton in his New Humanist article, Faith kills soberly writes:
Sam Harris’ “argument is that the threat of terror facing the world is the direct result of religion — or, more specifically, faith itself…
Unhappily, the argument rides on the back of some startling oversimplifications, exaggerations and elisions…
That religion as a badge of tribalism is frequently a major complicating factor in such conflicts is obvious, but it is by no means self–evident that religion is invariably the root cause…what about the world wars of the 20th century? Did British and German empire–builders slaughter millions in the 1914–18 war for religion? Was the conflict between liberal democracy and Nazism a religious war? Did Stalin kill tens of millions of his own people for religious reasons? Yes, says Harris (as indeed he must to support his thesis): communism, and presumably fascism, was ‘little more than a political religion[...], cultic and irrational’. But this is to concede that it is irrational dogma in general rather than religious faith in particular which creates the killing fields, and that undoes his argument…
So Sam Harris the faithless and George Bush the faithful, equally stupefied by 9/11, arrive at much the same conclusion: there is an enemy out to get us. It can't be argued with, so it must be eradicated…
He undermines his war on unreasoning faith with the admission that ‘we cannot live by reason alone’…
For this is the problem with The End of Faith: we all have faith of one sort or another. In a world which seems incapable of shaking off belief in real gods and devils, it takes a lot of faith to be a humanist.”

Dr. John Dickson wrote:
The slogan 'religion leads to violence' finds plausibility today not through logic or the facts but through simple repetition…The 'religion-leads-to-violence' mantra has become a truism in our culture only because fascinating people, popular books and high-production documentaries say it over and over. But it isn't true-certainly not in the blanket sense intended…

Historians estimate that the Spanish Inquisition killed approximately 5,000-6,000 people over its 350-year history. That's fewer than 18 a year. One a year is too many, but the number hardly sustains the monstrous narratives we often hear. Likewise, the Northern Ireland troubles - if indeed they were religiously inspired - caused the deaths of about 3,500 people over a 30-year period. Again, one death 'in the name of Christ' is a blasphemy but the iconic status of these two evils of Christendom exceeds the reality.

Thirdly, we should always be suspicious of an argument that cannot concede anything to the other side. It is naive or dogmatic not to admit the great good done in Christ's name throughout history (need I list them?!). Even today most non-Government welfare in this country is delivered through faith-based agencies. Create a list of all the organisations you know and do the maths. And, according to government figures, a disproportionate amount of philanthropic giving and volunteering is offered by those who regularly attend church. This doesn't make Christians better than secularists but it belies the claim that they are worse. And that is definitely what some are saying at the moment-religious people poison everything, they are the root of all evil, they prefer Inquisition to thought, and so on…[1]

He is failing to note that according to atheist ilogic evil done in the name of religion discredits religion but good done in its name does not accredit it.

John Preston, Preaching to the converted
In The God Delusion, Dawkins quotes John Lennon's Imagine and suggests that without religion the world would be a happier and more harmonious place. “Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot…”
But surely, I suggest, this is a very naive way of looking at things. Even if religion disappeared overnight, there would still be a predilection for violence in the human character.“Well,” says Dawkins, sounding quite unruffled, ‘that could be right. It's always arguable that if there wasn't a religious label people would find something else. Let's take football, for example. With Rangers and Celtic, say, would that rivalry continue if you took religion out of the equation? You think it would?’“I do,” I tell him, “because whatever else religion does to people, I don't believe it makes them innately aggressive.”“Yes,” he says, “I agree with that.”Yet isn't he implying quite the opposite?“Hmm, let me try to think that through… If the only thing you've got against someone is that they support the wrong football team, you might get into a fight about it, but you will stop short of killing them. Now that's something you might well not do if you've been taught from babyhood upwards that your God will approve of such behaviour. You don't have to produce evidence to support your belief. You simply say, "It's my faith", and are blind to any kind of argument. If part of your faith is the righteousness of killing infidels or apostates, then that does seem to me to go further than the ordinary aggression which you pessimistically attribute to humans anyway.” [ellipses in original]

Here, he does something that is very much his modus operandi: he is asked a very specific question, he waters down the question, he responds to his watered down version, and he think that he has succeeded.
The question was about events such as suicide bombings, 9/11, 7/7, Crusades, witch-hunts, and the Gunpowder Plot and thus, related to a predilection for violence in the human character. He disregards such catastrophically violent events and waters them down to disputations about football teams. This is so that he can dismiss the concerns and put on the appearance of having his argument save face. Yet, he is also wrong that “you will stop short of killing them.” He may be unaware that riots break out over sporting events and that in fact, people are murdered over football games.

Now, what if you've been taught from babyhood upwards that there is no God and that ultimately if you caused one bio-organism to cease from living it does not matter and there are no ultimate consequences? What if you've been taught from babyhood upwards that your race is superior to others and since you are the fittest you should survive and they ought not? Obviously, we could what if this ad infinitum replacing “that your God will approve” with any non-religious sentiment of which we may conceive.

Let us now review the three basic conclusions of the argument from religious violence:
1) Some claim that religious violence discredits the very concept of God.
2) Some claim that religious violence discredits the whole religion.
3) Some claim that religious violence discredits the violent individual.


1) Some claim that religious violence discredits the very concept of God.
This is a non sequitur. Anyone can do anything in the name of anything and do so in a manner which is wholly fallacious. Violence is done in the name of freedom and yet freedom is not discredited.

2) Some claim that religious violence discredits the whole religion.
This has some validity. If a religion does not preach that violence be done in its name, or in the name of its God, then those who commit violence in its name, or in the name of its God, are actually going against the very tenets which they claim to uphold—by contradicting said tenets they are discrediting themselves.
If a religion does preach that violence be done in its name, or in the name of its God, then the argument is valid and the whole religion may be discredited.

3) Some claim that religious violence discredits the violent individual.
This is valid whether a religion does or does not preach that violence be done in its name, or in the name of its God.

All of this presupposes that atheists have some standard, beyond their personal preferences and prejudices, by which to make such determinations—which they do not: they merely appeal to arguments from outrage and arguments for embarrassment. Atheism discredits condemnation and condemnation discredits atheism because in condemning anything they are appealing to a transcendent standard.

[1] Dr. John Dickson, “‘Religious violence’ a small part of the story,” ABC.net.au, May 20, 2009

16 comments:

  1. Of course, the first logical question to ask an atheist would be, “Just who are you to bequeath what is wrong, bad or evil?”

    And, of course, the answer is the obvious one: we are human beings - we, that is humans, are the ONLY ones that CAN "bequeath" (weird usage of the word) what is wrong, bad or evil. To borrow from Terry Pratchett "There is no Justice. There is only us."

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  2. And, of course, the answer is the obvious one: we are human beings - we, that is humans, are the ONLY ones that CAN "bequeath" (weird usage of the word) what is wrong, bad or evil.

    Good point. It means Stalin et al were acting morally when they ordered the deaths of millions because they decreed that it was wrong, evil and bad to question the state. Who are we to argue? There is no justice. There is only us. And people like Stalin.

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  3. Who are we to argue?

    Was I not clear? What part of "we are human beings" did you not understand? I can argue that Stalin made grossly wrong (read 'evil') choices because I'm a human being that can look at what he did and see that the moderate benefit that derived from his decisions were vastly outweighed by the incalculable harm he caused. But it is not just me but that is the consensus judgment of all morally sane people. But there is no cosmic court of justice that can look at what Stalin did (and why he did it) and decide that he was morally wrong (or morally justified): that is our job. If we don't do it, it won't get done.

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  4. "But it is not just me but that is the consensus judgment of all morally sane people."

    Oh please. You're saying that twenty million or more murders of innocents might be considered consensually moral if the benefits had outweighed the harm. That's exactly the moral "reasoning" of people like Stalin, Hitler and all the others. You are proving my point. I'm afraid you are the one that fails to understand your own moral premises.

    Do you see why so many people distrust atheism?

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  5. Do you see why so many people distrust atheism?

    No, because we sure don't get a better deal from religion.

    The core of the Thuggee practice is religious, the Borgia popes never scrupled to murder for fun, profit or power and the crusaders would have nuked the Saracens if they had the technology. Other than the greater scope afforded by industrial methodologies and a moustache, what did Stalin have that Tomás de Torquemada didn't?

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  6. You're saying that twenty million or more murders of innocents might be considered consensually moral if the benefits had outweighed the harm.

    History is replete with examples of governments causing great harm to innocents for what they believe to be a greater good.

    -Lincoln started one of the bloodiest wars of our history in order to preserve a particular government.

    -Truman dropped the atomic bomb on two cities causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians in the hope of ending the war.

    -George W. Bush ordered a missile strike on a house that had a known terrorist leader in it. It also had a number of innocent men, women and children in it.


    So, yes, when there is sufficient benefit we can condone causing great harm. Can you disagree with the evaluation? Sure, you may think that the potential benefit isn't worth the pain and deaths but you are still making the same harm/benefit evaluation.

    Some of the time we can look at these decision and say, yes the expected cost was worth the expected benefits. Other times, the balance is too close or too uncertain to make a determination. But there are also those times when the harm is just so egregious that there is no reasonable way for there to be enough benefit to justify the harm - those actions we call evil.

    (Actually, I also consider fairness and basic human rights in my moral evaluations but the process is the same, just more complicated.)

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  7. Mao the Murderer.July 20, 2009 at 6:04 PM

    Atheists don't have a right and wrong we just vote on it! Some of our votes count more than others!

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  8. Very nice article Mariano.
    Good to see those who still think Richard Dawkins has not gone senile are defending their champion of Aspergers Syndrome by simply repeating his argument.
    Bravo "Brights".

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  9. Other than the greater scope afforded by industrial methodologies and a moustache, what did Stalin have that Tomás de Torquemada didn't?

    Then you agree with Mariano. Atheism does not confer a greater sense of morality nor a more potent grasp of reason. The New Atheists are irrational to claim as such.

    History is replete with examples of governments causing great harm to innocents for what they believe to be a greater good......So, yes, when there is sufficient benefit we can condone causing great harm.

    That's just laughable. And the irony is completely lost on you. If Stalin believed that he was working for the greater good, then by your own reasoning, he cannot logically be considered wrong, evil or immoral.

    You are simply incapable of comprehending that the problem is precisely that you believe that you know what the greater good is, just like Stalin and, yes, Torquemada. I condemn the Inquisitor because he acted against the teachings of his religion. You condemn Stalin because he failed to produce enough benefits to outweigh the negatives. Not particularly rational or moral.

    So yes, distrusting atheism would seem to be a reasonable and logical conclusion.

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  10. Then you [me] agree with Mariano. Atheism does not confer a greater sense of morality nor a more potent grasp of reason.

    What I was saying is that religion does not deliver on its sales pitch to make people better. It would be more accurate to say that religion does not provide more than atheism in the morality department. In the end, people are people and do what people do, with or without religion. As sages have wisely written, a man without religion is like a fish without a bicycle.

    The distinction is that atheism doesn't/can't appeal to fictitious authority, or rationalise it's tenets by reference to imaginary friends and foes; we have no angles or devils to blame things on. We don't have your convenient all-purpose excuse that "the Devil made me do it!" I suppose that fundamental honesty and realism is somewhat superior religion, but, no, it doesn't necessarily confer superior moral judgement by itself.

    WRT Stalin (and Hitler, and the other monsters of fame and legend), other than being convenient to your prejudice, why do you attribute their actions to atheism? Did it ever occur to you they were just plain crazy? Can you show a connection between belief/disbelief and violence? For example, both Hitler and Stalin were abused as children, why is that a less relevant explanation for their behavior than their church attendance?

    The US has 5% of the world's population, 75% of which is religious, and produces 80% of the world's serial killers. What's your theory of religious moral prophylaxis for this correlation?

    I condemn the Inquisitor because he acted against the teachings of his religion.

    No, he didn't. His actions were sanctioned by the church. He was as religious as you, just a different mutation of the same core. The Thuggee were as relisious as you, just a different religion. The precolumbian Maya and Inca indians, who practiced human sacrifice and cannibalism, were very religious. And if you think what they did was bad, the brutality of their new european chirstian masters make the Inca gods look like pikers.

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  11. I don't find your argument from special pleading to be particularly compelling, but I'm glad that you acknowledge that, contrary to what some high-profile New Atheists assert, disbelief does not lead to superior morality or rationality. In fact, your certainty of the level of my religiosity and prejudice are perfect examples that atheism does not equal rationality. Disagreeing with what you say does not make me a bigot or a religious fanatic, and for you to claim such exposes the degree of your own bigotry which is exceeded only by your apparent paranoia.

    Your references to Hitler and Stalin make no sense in any context regarding my postings. Your point is meaningless because I've not argued that atheism turns people into immoral people.

    Thanks for the statistic on serial killers, but if that's an example of evidence showing a connection between religion and crime, then all I can say is that you seem to be extremely easy to convince.

    I see no evidence in your diatribe that atheism can lead people to be less violent, or more rational, in fact you still seem to be agreeing with much of what Mariano has written. All you have expressed in your post is a religious adherence to your own prejudice.

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  12. People blame the religion for the violence committed by its followers when those followers perform violent acts which can only be due to messages in the holy text (note sharia law and the human rights violations committed by its enforces, note suicide bombings and the verses in the religious texts which encourage death towards non-believers). Atheism isn't a dogma, it has no religious text associated with it, so any acts committed by atheists must be blamed on the individual.



    Your rants help to illustrate the despair inherent to your position. That you have to reach so far, grasp so hard for any point to attack atheists and atheism, is a measure of how weak your position is. In a century your philosophy will be long forgotten.

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  13. "In a century your philosophy will be long forgotten."

    They said that last century.

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  14. "Atheism isn't a dogma, it has no religious text associated with it, so any acts committed by atheists must be blamed on the individual."

    To the contrary: atheism is the dogma that no god exists.

    Unlike religion, atheists have no standard by which to judge others or themselves. Therefore, any moralizing by atheists is thoroughly ironic.

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  15. Good one. Anonymous. ;)

    signed "that anonymous troll"

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  16. Talking to yourself again, Anonymous?

    ReplyDelete