One of the arguments against religion in the contemporary atheist arsenal is the argument that religious beliefs fuel war and terrorism. Rather than pull quotations from such well-known authors as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, I will quote a couple of passages from one of the contributors to Philosophers Without Gods, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. His piece is entitled "Overcoming Christianity." After describing his movement from his evangelical Christian upbringing to a quietistic rejection of Christianity, Sinnott-Armstrong tells us how he became an evangelical atheist:
My quietism ended when current events taught me the dangers of religion. I had always known how religions, including Christianity, led to wars in the Middle East, Ireland, and so on. Many wars, of course, are not based on religion. Even religious wars result from non-religious forces as well. Nonetheless, it is hard to deny that many wars have been and continue to be fueled in large part by religious beliefs. It is no coincidence that terrorists are so often motivated by religion, since it is hard to get non-religious people to volunteer as suicide bombers. (76)
It is true that people holding religious beliefs have used, and are using, their religious beliefs to justify war, terrorism, and such other evils as forced conversions and inquisitions. No reasonable person can deny this. But what Sinnott-Armstrong (S-A) says above in the second sentence is that religions lead to wars. Does he really want to say that religions lead to wars? All religions? Buddhism? I understand that there are some Buddhist terrorists. But surely a professional philosopher such as S-A can see the difference between (i) Some Buddhists are terrorists and (ii) Buddhism causes war and terrorism. If a Buddhist is a terrorist, this is an accidental fact about him; there is nothing in the essence of Buddhism that enjoins terrorism. No Buddhist qua Buddhist is a terrorist. It escapes me how the doctrines, precepts and practices of Buddhism cause war, terrorism and kindred evils. Similarly for Christianity. Plenty of atrocities have been committed by people who identify themselves as Christians. But that is not to say that the characteristic doctrines, precepts and practices of Christianity cause war, terrorism and the like. It is rather the opposite: when the doctrines and precepts of Buddhism and Christianity are acted upon they tend to mitigate human savagery.
And then there is the case of Gandhi whose principle of ahimsa (no-harm) derives from his Hinduism. Hinduism as understood and practiced by him surely did not lead to war and terroism. Did he perhaps not understand the principles of his religion? So it cannot be religion as such that causes war and terrorism. The central teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity are anti-war and anti-terrorism.
So one of the mistakes that people like Sinnot-Armstrong make is that they confuse the doctrinal content of a religion with the behavior of some of the religion's adherents. A second mistake they make is to think that all religions are equal in a manner to justify the ascribing to all of them, or to religion as such, the conspicuous faults of one of them. Surely one has to be muddled in his thinking if he thinks that the large number of suicide bombers among Muslims is good evidence of the terroristic nature of religion as such. This third mistake points to a fourth: the false assumption that all religions, from most primitive to the most advanced, are all on a par morally and intellectually.
A fifth point that needs to be made is that even if (some? all?) religious beliefs cause wars and other evils, or rather are part of the motivational framework of individuals who are bellicose and terroristic, this is also true of other belief-systems, belief-systems that are anti-religious. Communism, Fascism, and National Socialism are examples. According to the Black Book of Communism, Communists in the 20th century murdered close to 100 million people. Now Communism is virulently anti-religious. It is a political ideology that is committed to the destruction of religions as to the destruction of an 'opiate' in Marx's famous simile, one that keeps people from realizing the worker's paradise here on earth.
So my question to Sinnott-Armstrong et al. is: If you oppose religion because of its tendency to cause bloodshed, why do you not oppose political ideologies as well and for the same reason? Indeed, if you believe that religion is the problem, why do you not hold that belief as such is the problem, or rather all belief that transcends matters of obvious empirical fact? After all, people fight bitterly over all sorts of beliefs religious and non-religious. (Some believe in wealth redistribution, other do not; some believe in anthropogenic global warming, others do not, etc.)
If one opposes a religion such as Christianity because it causes wars despite its preaching of 'Thou shalt not kill' and 'Love thy neighbor,' but does not oppose anti-religious political ideologies like Communism that also cause wars but which preaches that any end is justified including murder if it leads to the socialist paradise, then the 'reason' proffered for rejecting religion is bogus. It is simply no argument against religion to say that some people use it for murderous ends; for it is also the case that some people use anti-religious ideologies for murderous ends. A good reason for rejecting religion cannot be a reason that would also apply to non-religions and indeed to any belief-system that inspires contention and could be used by someone to kill and commit kindred evils. It is absurd to say: I object to religion because it leads to bloodshed but I have no problem with non-religious belief-systems that also lead to bloodshed.
Sinnott-Armstrong senses the difficulty in his position for he goes on to say:
Of course, atheists kill, too. Russian and Chinese Communist governments are famous examples. However, these atheists killed in the name of communism, not atheism. (p. 76)
The difference, then, is that theists who kill kill in the name of theism, whereas atheists who kill do not kill in the name of atheism. Now surely this is an example of special pleading. For although it is true that some theists kill in the name of theism (e.g. some Christians kill in the name of Christ; some Muslims kill in the name of Muhammad, etc.), it is also true that some atheists kill in the name of atheism: there are cases of atheists who have tortured and crucified Catholic priests in order to show them that there is no God. These atheists tortured in the name of atheism, whether they were Communists or Nazis.
To say or imply that no atheist kills in the name of atheism is blatant special pleading. It amounts to saying that atheism is by definition a belief-system that cannot be misused by anyone, and if anyone were to misuse use it that would show that he is not an atheist! That is an example of the No True Scotsman fallacy. If a Communist crucifies a priest to prove to him the nonexistence of God, one cannot reasonably say that it was the Communism but not the atheism of the torturer that was responsible for the crime. Communism is applied atheism: it cannot be implemented without the destruction of theism and the 'opiate' of religion generally. It is ridiculous to argue that when Communists destroyed Christian monasteries and Buddhist temples they were doing it in the name of Communism but not atheism, when the destruction of theism and religion is essential to the implementation of Communism.
When one examines the matter one comes to see that militant atheism is fueled by politically correct hatred of religion, not by reason, which fact explains why militant atheists cannot appreciate such simple points as the ones I have just made.