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Thursday, April 09, 2009

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Interesting, I thought Sinnott-Armstrong's recent critique of divine command theory in Is Goodness Without God Good Enough was pretty bad.
But to the point, you note Armstrong's claim that people kill in the name of God and not in the name of atheism. It seems to me that there is another response here. One could grant that atheism by itself does not motivate atrocities of the sort mentioned, one needs atheism plus some other beliefs such as belief in a socialist utopia, the role of religion in that utopia, and the belief that the ends justify the means. The problem is the theist has exactly the same response, surely its not belief in God per se that leads to atrocities, its belief in God plus certain beliefs about what God commands or permits etc. The real question then is whether these additional beliefs are essential to the ideology in question, with communism they arguably are. But with Christianity and Buddism etc they clearly are not. Aquinas's justification for the inquisition for example invokes no central doctrine of Christianity.

Hi, Bill.

You're right to criticise Sinnott-Armstrong's line of argument. From the passages you quoted Sinnott-Armstrong admits that, while religious beliefs can be implicated in violence, and therefore be considered in some sense causes of that violence, what is often called religious violence can sometimes have significant non-religious causes, and so cannot be reasonably ascribed solely to religion.

But what he seems not to realise is that to admit this qualification makes the non-sequitur at the core of his argument embarrassingly obvious. If he believes that religion should in some way be eradicated from society because it is implicated in some violent behaviour--from personal assault right up to mass genocide--then he needs to justify why, by this same reasoning, political beliefs should not be similarly outlawed, for historically they, too, have led to such behaviour. And considering that the violent behaviour generally ascribed solely to religion often, if not always, has a very significant political factor, too, then it seems that Armstrong-Hewitt, if he truly wants religion eradicated, would be compelled by his own reasoning to want to speed up this process by eradicating all political beliefs at the same time.

At this stage Armstrong-Hewitt might agree that political beliefs can cause violence (and he probably would: the strong links between religious and political violence are obvious), but say that to eradicate all political ideologies because it is possible that they will lead to violence is just excessive. Only those ideologies that are a real threat, like fascism, should be eradicated. The benign ones can stay because, even in their flawed state, they do more good than harm. But then he would be caught in an inconsistency, because religious beliefs, too, come in benign and dangerous forms--and, like most political ideologies, often fall somewhere in between, depending on interpretation and the historical circumstances they are practiced in. So if he is willing to excuse benign political ideologies from eradication, then, to be consistent, he must also excuse benign religious beliefs from his culling.

He might then go on to say that political ideologies are necessary for a properly functioning society, and that religion isn't; that some future secular eschaton would provide all the benefits of religious belief without any of the deficits. But these sorts of fantastical utopian visions have a habit of not being very realistic. A slightly better argument would be to claim that, while political systems are primarily functional, religious belief is chiefly propositional: it makes truth claims, e.g. that God exists, and ultimately rises or falls on the validity of these claims in a way that political ideologies don't (or do to a lesser degree: while democracy may not be adopted for purely functional reasons, it is also strange to claim that democracy is true). If God doesn't exist then religion should be eventually eradicated, even if we have to be gentle about it. On balance, it is functionally harmful (a contestable claim), and even if it wasn't, it still makes truth claims that can be shown to be false (a very contestable claim, especially vis-a-vis the existence of God). And for that reason all religious belief, functionally beneficial or not, should be abandoned. The more benign political ideologies suffer from neither of these deficits, and so, they might claim, your political parallel isn't valid. We can keep politics and get rid of religion and be perfectly consistent while we do it. Of course they would first have to show that religion is on balance harmful and that philosophical arguments in favour of its central propositions are false. The New Atheists spend a surprisingly small amount of time doing either of these things, and when they try, the arguments tend to fail. To put it lightly, they have a lot of work to do before their fantastical visions of a secular utopia can be taken at all seriously.

But now we're getting closer to the real reasons why the New Atheists, in my experience, believe what they do. All this moral indignation is ultimately just a red herring. Yes, religious belief is implicated in violent behaviour, and yes, sometimes it is the dominant cause. Nevertheless, I don't believe that most of these New Atheists adopt their position because of moral concerns. If they did, they wouldn't be so ready to brush aside the crimes committed by. Bringing up religious atrocities is a fine polemical move, and it always puts the religious person on the back foot, especially when the special pleading you outlined is brought into play. But the dominant reason the New Atheists believe what they believe--and I say this from a position of once moderating the largest atheist board on the internet--because of a metaphysical belief system, i.e., metaphysical materialism. If, as they maintain, all truths are physical truths (most don't bother to consider what that means for mathematical or logical truths; they just assume they can be incorporated somehow) then that rules out religious belief at the outset. In fact, it rules out essentially all beliefs that are not empirically verifiable, an axiom which is in itself actually self-refuting, but that's not my current point. All this moral indignation is at best a small part of their reasons for adopting atheism (of the New Atheist style). They adopt it because a) they want to be scientific, and fallaciously equate metaphysical materialism with science; b.) they equate being intellectual with being non-religious, and they want to feel like intellectuals; and c.) because atheism of the New Atheist style involves the feeling that one is part of a persecuted minority; as you know, Dawkins once equated modern atheists with "gays in the fifties" or some-such--a statement so patently absurd it beggars belief; and d.) just a general contempt for religion, stemming from a caricatured understanding of religious philosophy, theology, practice, etc.

Sorry for the very long (first!) post.

This sentence:

"Nevertheless, I don't believe that most of these New Atheists adopt their position because of moral concerns. If they did, they wouldn't be so ready to brush aside the crimes committed by"

should read as

"Nevertheless, I don't believe that most of these New Atheists adopt their position because of moral concerns. If they did, they wouldn't be so ready to brush aside the crimes committed by states whose ideology is explicitly atheistic."

I am an atheist. The reasons do not matter for the present purposes. However, despite my atheist inclinations I think, teach, and write about religion (particularly theism). I respect religion and I respect sincere people of faith. Religion played a central role in human history and will undoubtedly keep playing such a role. Some of the best as well as some of the worst things throughout this history were motivated by this or that religion. Similarly many good as well as very bad things were done by non-religious motives.

Religion is a complex phenomenon. It exists in many layers. It includes a body of propositions: call these the Religious Tenets. It involves traditions, practices, customs, rituals, rules, etc. Call these the Religious-Lore. It includes churches, synagogues, mosques, schools, and other affiliated organizations. Call the collection of this Institutional-Religion. Live-religions also have the followers: a congregation of people who to one degree or another accept the tenets, follow some or all of the lore, and are involved to various degrees in religious activities and institutions. Call the set of these people the Congregation. The social phenomenon of religion is a continuous interface amongst these layers within and between each of the layers and the surrounding society.

Bill has painstakingly argued in many posts against a wholesale critique of religion as such based upon the conduct of religious people and religious institutions. Bill has often specifically cited and criticized certain professional philosophers who have advanced arguments that morally condemn this or that religion (more often than not Christianity) based upon the actions of some or many of its congregation or its institutions. Initially I questioned the effort Bill invests in such critique. Perhaps due to my naiveté, I simply assumed that no professional philosopher will condemn religion based upon the conduct of some of its adherents. I thought that the fallacy in such inferences should have been obvious particularly to professional philosophers. Those of us who teach critical thinking frequently point out two well known fallacies to avoid: attempting to undermine a proposition by attacking the character of the messenger; bolstering a proposition by citing a figure of authority who believes it. I would have thought that professional philosophers from all people would see how a moral condemnation of religion based upon the character and conduct of some of its institutions and adherents is an instance of the first fallacy noted above.

Upon reflection, however, I came to realize that something more complex than a simple fallacy is going on here. I also realized that unless one attempts to get to the bottom of what are the real concerns of these fellow atheists, what underlies their apparently fallacious arguments, a genuine and productive exchange and debate is impossible. And, finally, I have noticed that some of the quotations Bill produced in this and other posts from the writings of the atheists he criticized have a similar form. Religion is condemned on the basis of the conduct of its adherents. But as I noted above religion is a complex phenomenon that involves religious tenets, lore, institutions, and a congregation. While the critics of religion cannot logically infer a condemnation of the tenets of religion merely based upon the conduct of its institutions and adherents, perhaps this is not what these critics intend to do. Let me then distinguish several different questions and then examine the critics’ case regarding each:

(A) Is it legitimate to morally commend or condemn religion as a complex social entity consisting of an interconnected network of components such as religious tenets, lore, institutions, and congregation based upon its overall social influence and the conduct of its institutions and congregation?

(B) Is it legitimate to morally commend or condemn any *one* of the components of religion: i.e., its tenets, lore, institutions, or congregation, based upon the social influence and conduct of its institutions and congregation?

Once we distinguish these two questions, I think (hope) we can better understand the various sides of this debate. I think we can all agree to the following proposition: as a complex social entity, religion can be morally scrutinized for the consequences of its influence upon the society at large and the conduct of its institutions and adherents within a given historical period, provided of course we adopt the very same standards to any ideology that constitutes a social entity analogous to religion. The moral scrutiny then must be conducted on the basis of the merits and demerits of religion as a social entity and its impact upon society. The verdict may be commendation or condemnation, depending upon the details of the case. So the answer to question (A) is positive.

What about question (B)? Here we face a more complicated and subtle situation. Surely, it is legitimate to morally scrutinize religious institutions and congregation for their conduct just like it is legitimate to morally scrutinize any institution or group or individual for their conduct. What about the religious tenets? Is it legitimate to morally scrutinize religious tenets based upon the conduct of its institutions and adherents in a given historical period? One of Bill’s principal arguments has been that the atheist critics of religion condemn religious tenets based upon the conduct of religious institutions and congregation and that this inference is logically illegitimate. I agree! As a logical step such inferences are patently invalid. But we must beware from overstating our case here, otherwise we rule out the possibility to commending religious tenets based upon the positive influence they have upon the conduct of their adherence. Among the things I admire and commend about theism is the historical fact that some of its tenets represent a significant moral and social advance over previous religious tenets.

But there is a solution to this tension. We are entitled to morally scrutinize religious (or any other) tenets on two grounds: (a) logical: what are the logical consequences of such tenets? How such tenets can be supported? etc., All of these matters pertain to the logical properties of these propositions: their meaning, truth, proof. (b) Causal or empirical: Do people who adopt these tenets as their beliefs morally better or not? How do the religious tenets promoted and disseminated by the institutions and adherents? What is the purpose of holding these tenets as beliefs? How are these tenets used? Does the presence of these religious tenets bring about overall positive or negative influences upon the society at large? Does their presence enhance the moral fabric of the society? etc. In this case we will have to get involved in complex analysis of how these tenets are adopted as beliefs by people in a society, how these beliefs influence their conduct and role in society? etc. In short, we are here looking at the connection between these propositions as the tenets of a religion, their psychological impact, and their social role.

I think that several of the arguments that the atheist critics of religion advance pertain to religion as a social entity: i.e., they are addressing question (A). Occasionally, some of these arguments set out to scrutinize religious tenets by addressing question (B). However, I suspect that their intention is to do so along the lines of (b) above: namely, evaluate the causal or empirical role of these tenets within a given society or period.
I hope that the above is useful to construct a framework within which we can situate the atheists’ critical comments, Bill’s objections, and engage in a philosophically profitable discussion about these complex issues.

peter

Hi Bill,

I think it's worth discussing under what circumstances you would impute an idea or an ideology as the cause of immoral behavior. Sometimes it seems to me that religious apologists go so far in the other direction that it almost seems like no sincere belief system can ever do any harm. I could say of the KKK that most members did not commit terroristic crimes. Nevertheless, the KKK was a terroristic organization, because it was an organization whose motivating ideas and purpose was a terroristic one. You would be completely right to say that the ideas of the KKK caused the deaths of about 4,000 innocent human beings.

My hypothesis is that any organization or ideology--religous, atheistic, or otherwise--should be evaluated based on a.) the meaning of founding texts and other semantic data it holds in central esteem and b.) the examples of its founders. This holds true independently of the actions of the members. Roughly something like that, it needs some fine-tuning.

I say that the KKK is an evil organization because its founding ideas and purpose justify the kinds of murders that its members really did commit. Likewise, as someone who has lived in more than one Muslim country and reads Arabic enough to decipher the news, I can say that Islam is a religion of despotism and terror based on its founding principles. The point is not that some Muslims do evil while others do not. The point is that central ideas of the religion--Jihad, the Dar al Harb/Dar al Salam distinction, pervasive threats of torture to Kufar like me throughout the Koran, injunctions for men to beat disobeying wives, (I could go on)-- and specific deeds of Muhammed, the founder of Islam, offer justification for the sorts of attacks that the Osama Bin Ladens of this world carry out.

The fact that there are peace-promoting Sufis only shows that human beings are capable of cognitive dissonence. I doubt you'd be persuaded by a mystic group of neo-Nazis who interpreted Mein Kampf as a complicated, metaphorical injunction to peace and tolerance. Words mean something. Justifiable Interpretation is not infinitely variable. And when the words of a text justify evil deeds among followers, we rightly blame the text when those deeds are carried out.

Hi Bill,

I recently wrote a (short) blog post on the issue of the causes of war, esp. religious ones. In case you're interested:

http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2009/04/war-pigs.html

"Christianity led to wars in the Middle East, Ireland, and so on." This claim cannot withstand any scrutiny. What does he mean by "Christianity"? And what does "led to" mean? When was the last time that Christians, qua Christians, or a nation, explicitly in the name of Christianity, declared war on another nation or people? Even if it is true that certain of the crusades of the 11th-16th centuries were fought explicitly in the name of Christianity, and were without justification, surely Christian thinking and practice with respect to war and violence have been reformed and refined since then. Perhaps Armstrong's point should be simply that contemporary believers avoid the mistakes of certain elements of medieval theology and practice with respect to war and violence. (Though Aquians certainly has established a solid basis for thinking rightly about the nature of war.) It is ignorant, as you point out, to characterize Christianity and contemporary Christians on the basis of some historical wickedness of its adherents. Even the conflict in Ireland is far more complicated than "their Christianity leads them to violence against each other."
Armstrong should simply say, "Many Christians have been sinful, therefoer I shall never be a Christian." But their sinfulness is shown by the very ideals they espouse, though fail to observe. One does not, at that point, jettison the ideals.

I think some people actually subscribe to the ideology of John Lennon's Imagine:
Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

Sounds good when John sings it, but nonsense on stilts as sociopolitical analysis.

Victor,

Lennon I bet did not intend this song to be a sociopolitical analysis. One might look at it as the secular version of the theist's depiction of heaven. And if the theist is entitled to *imagine there is a heaven* without countries, no killing or dying, no competing religions, and souls of people live in peace, then so is the secularist ( at least in a song).

peter

P.S. The song by Leonard Cohen, Suzanne, part of which Bill posted above is one of my favorite songs ever. It takes me to the dark as well as to the light sides simultaneously. I shudder.

Hi Bill,

I've always thought there is often a huge difference between religion, and the people who do things in the name of religion. You used the examples of Buddhism and Christianity, and I think another specific example would be the Quakers, who, from my understanding, are about as anti-violence as you can get. I remember hearing a great quote from Peter Kreeft who said something to the effect of, "Religion does not cause war. Irreligion, professed by people who claimed to believe a religion has been the cause of war. Every major religion in the world teaches peace, not war."

If a person subscribes to religion P, and the person commits some horrible act of violence, I think the question that should be asked is, "Is this act of violence consistent with the central teachings of religion P?" If the answer is no, I don't see how religion P could be blamed at all for the act of violence committed by the person who claimed to be a follower of P.

I think one of the best ways in which this occasional discrepancy between a religion and it's followers can be demonstrated is every time a religious person is called a hypocrite. Every time an atheist calls a Christian a hypocrite, he is making a very important distinction. He is essentially saying, "Your religion teaches you to behave one way, and right now you are not behaving that way." So what he's pointing out is that there is often a clear distinction between a religion's teachings, and the behaviour of some religious believers that is not consistent with their religion's teachings.

In calling a Christian a hypocrite, the atheist has no trouble seeing this distinction. Yet ironically, an atheist seems to have an incredibly hard time seeing this distinction when it comes to blaming religion for wars, rather than blaming the individuals whose behavior was not consistent with the teachings of his religion. Where is the hypocrisy then?

I forgot to mention, for anyone interested in reading a great book on the topic, I would recommend "Is Religion Dangerous?" by Keith Ward.

Aaron:

I generally agree with what you say. But your quote from Peter Kreeft, which I assume you endorse, seems problematic to me, or at least incomplete. The (crude) atheist may claim that, by definition, atheism can not be implicated in any violence. If any person or institution is atheistic and commits a crime, then, by definition, the motive for the crime derived from some belief that was only incidentally held in conjunction with atheism. Atheism itself is not at fault. What Kreeft is claiming is almost, but not quite, the religious equivalent of this line of argumentation; that is, it seems to be rather close to the special pleading Bill identified. The claim that religious beliefs can not be implicated in violent behaviour is dangerously similar to the claim that atheism qua atheism is incapable of being the cause of violent behaviour. (But not quite the same, as I hope I'll make clear by the end of this post.)

Kreeft's claim that "religion does not cause war" seems to me to be too easy, too superficial, to be a reasonable opinion, at least as stated. As Peter pointed out, religion is a tremendously complicated phenomenon. To my mind, it can plausibly separated into the two broad categories of necessary propositions and contingent propositions. On what definition of religion is Kreeft able to draw the conclusion that religion does not cause war? To say that "all major religions in the world teach peace, not war" is too simplistic to be helpful. If it were that clear, then appropriating religious beliefs for violent purposes would not be as easy as it historically has been.

You're correct, to my mind, when you say that atheists sometimes accuse religious people of acting contrary to the teachings of their religion, and that this is a tacit admission that their religion is not the cause of their behaviour. But, again, I think the situation is more complex than that. While the criticising atheist is admitting that the religious tenets of the believer are contrary to his (bad) behaviour, this does not compel the atheist to admit that the religion in question is composed entirely of morally praiseworthy teachings. And, in my experience, this is precisely the situation. "Jesus taught peace" isn't equivalent to "the Christian scriptures unequivocally promote peaceful behaviour". This is the reason why, when confronted with certain Biblical teachings promoting non-violence, reconciliation, etc., the criticising atheist has a whole laundry list of Bible verses that seem to espouse some sort of violence. And it isn't just the atheist that wields these verses: those religious believers who engage in violence sometimes use them to justify their behaviour as well. What I'm trying to say is that there is a fundamental ambiguity in precisely what, for example, Christianity teaches. I happen not to think that the situation is really that ambiguous, but there is certainly ambiguity. Consider the many sincere and orthodox Christians, some of whom promote pacifism and some of whom argue that certain types of violence are justified. The approach you outline in your second paragraph, Aaron, is, to my mind, the right approach. But the answer to the question "Is this act of violence consistent with the central teachings of religion P?" is much more difficult to settle than Kreeft's casual claim that all major religions promote peace, when at least a prima facie case can be made that they promote violence as well.

It is at this point that the disanalogy between atheism and religion becomes obvious. Nobody claims that religion qua religion is incapable of causing violent behaviour, as the crude atheist claims mutatis mutandis for atheism. Religions, if they are to be religions, necessarily (it seems) involve necessary propositions and contingent propositions. This shouldn't be too controversial. If religions are to be the causes of violence, then those causes must be derived from either certain of its necessary propositions, contingent propositions, or both. Is atheism in the same position? Does it involve necessary propositions? I think it does, and I think Peter does, too, but it is a common claim that it doesn't: that atheism is merely a lack of belief, with no inherent propositions. So before any valid comparisons can get off the ground this point needs to be settled. That atheism doesn't involve lore seems obvious to me, so from here on I'll just assume that it does. That it can also involve contingent propositions I'll explain in a moment.

So it seems to me that we have one of two choices of approach if we want to make a valid comparison of the benefits of atheism and religion.

The first approach is this. If atheism and religion both involve necessary propositions, then we must decide precisely which propositions are necessary for both. To be a theist it is not necessary to believe in the divinity of Christ, for example, so that is not a necessary proposition of theism. But the attributes ascribed to the 'greatest possible being' of the ontological argument seem to be plausible candidates for a stripped down definition of theism. What propositions does atheism involve? Well, the non-existence of God, obviously. And maybe only that. So if we were to compare the two for their impact on society, then one would have to demonstrate that one or more of the necessary propositions of either leads to violent behaviour. If those of theism can be shown to do so more often than those of atheism, without any reference to contingent propositions, then there is at least a partial case for rejecting theism. Mutatis mutandis for atheism.

The foregoing approach doesn't seem very promising to me because I don't think there is much chance of linking violent behaviour to propositions as dry and abstract as those necessary to bare theism and atheism.

The contingent proposition aspect has more promise as a basis for comparison and judgement. If we consider the variety of contingent propositions in conjunction with bare (i.e. necessary propositional) atheism and theism, I think we can get somewhere. Examples of contingent propositional theisms are obvious: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc. They incorporate both the necessary propositions of theism as well as contingent revealed truths. Examples of contingent proposition atheisms typically come in the form of political systems with a basis in atheism, such as communism, though metaphysical systems such as scientism or materialism also qualify. For example, that all truths are physical truths isn't a necessary proposition of atheism, nor are most of the tenets of Marxism.

I propose this: necessary propositional systems can only validly be compared to other necessary propositional systems: atheism can only be compared with theism, not Christianity or any other variety of theism that involves contingent propositions. Conversely, contingent-propositional systems can only validly be compared to other contingent-propositional systems: bare theism can not be compared to communism, and bare atheism can not be compared to Christianity. The mistake that Sinnott-Armstrong and almost all of the New Atheists make is to fallaciously compare a contingent-propositional system (typically Christianity) with a necessary propositional system (bare atheism), and draw invalid conclusions based on special pleading.

I hope all this makes some sense.

And Peter:

When I outlined what I believed were the motivating factors behind The New Atheist's adoption of atheism, I did not mean to include you or any of those other atheists, such as Quentin Smith, J.J.C. Smart, etc., who display a high degree of integrity and honesty.

Yet again, one of my sentences got muddled. This:

"That atheism doesn't involve lore seems obvious to me, so from here on I'll just assume that it does."

Should be this:

"That atheism involves necessary propositions seems obvious to me, so from here on I'll just assume that it does."

Brodie Bortignon writes:

>> But the dominant reason the New Atheists believe what they believe--and I say this from a position of once moderating the largest atheist board on the internet--because of a metaphysical belief system, i.e., metaphysical materialism. If, as they maintain, all truths are physical truths (most don't bother to consider what that means for mathematical or logical truths; they just assume they can be incorporated somehow) then that rules out religious belief at the outset. In fact, it rules out essentially all beliefs that are not empirically verifiable, an axiom which is in itself actually self-refuting, but that's not my current point. All this moral indignation is at best a small part of their reasons for adopting atheism (of the New Atheist style). They adopt it because a) they want to be scientific, and fallaciously equate metaphysical materialism with science; b.) they equate being intellectual with being non-religious, and they want to feel like intellectuals; and c.) because atheism of the New Atheist style involves the feeling that one is part of a persecuted minority; as you know, Dawkins once equated modern atheists with "gays in the fifties" or some-such--a statement so patently absurd it beggars belief; and d.) just a general contempt for religion, stemming from a caricatured understanding of religious philosophy, theology, practice, etc.<<

I think this is right. The main source of the atheism of New Atheists is materialism or naturalism. The scientists among them are not content to do science, they want to make an ideology of it: scientism. They also bizarrely think that if one takes religion seriously then one is either ignorant or stupid, whereas they are Brights, to use Dennett's self-congratulatory self-appellation. I also agree with your other two points as well.

I think we should add that militant atheists tend to be on the Left, and that their leftism is a source of their atheism. There are any number of atheists on the Right, but they tend not to be evangelical or militant.


Aaron Kenney writes, >>Every time an atheist calls a Christian a hypocrite, he is making a very important distinction. He is essentially saying, "Your religion teaches you to behave one way, and right now you are not behaving that way." So what he's pointing out is that there is often a clear distinction between a religion's teachings, and the behaviour of some religious believers that is not consistent with their religion's teachings.

In calling a Christian a hypocrite, the atheist has no trouble seeing this distinction. Yet ironically, an atheist seems to have an incredibly hard time seeing this distinction when it comes to blaming religion for wars, rather than blaming the individuals whose behavior was not consistent with the teachings of his religion. Where is the hypocrisy then?<<

That's a good point. The accusation of hypocrisy presupposes an understanding on the part of the accuser of the distinction between what a person professes (the content of his creed) and his behavior. But he forgets or suppresses his understanding of this distinction when he blames the creed for the crimes of the adherent. But I am not sure this is a case of hypocrisy on the part of the atheist accuser. It is more like self-serving self-deception, or bad faith.

Spencer,

Strictly speaking, nothing of a verbal nature, written or spoken, whether declarative or imperative, can cause death and destruction. "Jews are the offsping of pigs and monkeys.' 'Kill the infidel!' 'Liquidate the bourgeois swine!' Etc. For these abstracta to have any causal efficacy, their content needs to be implemented by agents in the world.

That being understood, we can still speak of Communism, say, as a murderous ideology inasmuch as the content of the doctrine justifies mass murder. And I suspect the same is true of Islam. I don't see how it could be true of Buddhism.

To refute a guy like Sinnott-Armstrong who blames religion as such for war and violence all I need is one example of a religion whose content is not such as to justify violence. Buddhism fits the bill quite nicely. That the Tamil Tigers are terrorists and call themselves Buddhists is beside the point. Not that you would disagree with anything I have just written.

"Strictly speaking, nothing of a verbal nature, written or spoken, whether declarative or imperative, can cause death and destruction. "Jews are the offsping of pigs and monkeys.' 'Kill the infidel!' 'Liquidate the bourgeois swine!' Etc. For these abstracta to have any causal efficacy, their content needs to be implemented by agents in the world."

Yes, but once they are implemented by agents into the world then they are part of a causal chain. They initiated a fatal sequence, to use Philippa Foot's terminology. The agent is to blame, but so to are the ideas that inspired them. The two aren't mutually exclusive.

I don't disagree with anything else you said.


Hi Brodie,

Thanks for your reply. I agree that the Kreeft quote is incomplete, insofar as it does not address the specific details of the issue. For example, as you pointed out, "religion" is notoriously hard to define. However, I think the main point of the quote was simply to draw attention to the fact that if a religious believer acts in such a way that is not consistent with his religion's teachings, then it would not be accurate to claim his religion as the cause of his actions, given that his actions are contrary to his religion's teachings, rather than consistent with it.

Regarding the special pleading charge, I think it would have been more accurate if Kreeft said, "The major religions of the world (Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism) do not cause war, because their central teachings are based on peace, not war." When he simply says, "Religion does not cause war," I can see your hesitation to agree because "religion" is such a broad term, and would need to be properly defined if Kreeft was to assert this.

I think it is possible for a religion to be a cause of war, of course, depending on the religion. Let's say that there exists a religion that is based on nihilism. If this religion's followers committed war-like actions, then in this case I think this particular religion could be justifiably regarded as a cause, because the religion's followers were not acting inconsistently with it's teachings. But regarding religions like Buddhism and Christianity, I agree with Bill when he writes:

"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."

But back to you. You wrote:

"...this does not compel the atheist to admit that the religion in question is composed entirely of morally praiseworthy teachings... What I'm trying to say is that there is a fundamental ambiguity in precisely what, for example, Christianity teaches."

There are obviously many different Christian denominations, so there is obviously much disagreement concerning specific doctrines. However, I think the ambiguity involves doctrines that are of more secondary importance. I think there is much less ambiguity regarding the central teachings. Now I'm no theologian, but I'm pretty sure that Jesus explicitly says the two most important commandments are, 1. Love God, and 2. Love your neighbour as yourself. If these are clearly the central teachings, then we can have another look at the charge of Christianity being the cause of war. And I must admit, I would be fairly hard-pressed to see just how dropping bombs on people with obvious malicious intent could possibly be classified as "loving your neighbour as yourself."

One quick analogy before I call it a post. Let's say that someone commits suicide by overdosing on some kind of medication. Now even though the consequences of this action were obviously harmful, the very reason they were harmful was precisely because the person used this medication which is contrary (or at the very least, not consistent) to the way in which is was intended to be used. When someone asks what the cause of a particular war was, I think they might be more specifically asking "where exactly should the majority of the blame be placed?" In the example I gave, one could technically say that the medication was the cause of death, in that it was the medication which killed the person. However, when it comes to where to place the blame, I don't think it should lie with the medication, because it was not used in a way in which it was intended. And I think likewise, someone dropping bombs on people and participating in other obviously harmful acts is not acting in such a way that Christ would have intended his followers to act, in that the acts are clearly not consistent with what Jesus said the two most important commandments are.

I suspected we really agreed, Aaron. After your quotation of me I said: "I happen not to think that the situation is really that ambiguous, but there is certainly ambiguity." The second clause I now think is too strong. One could argue for ambiguity, but, in the end, I don't really think there's that much ambiguity in the case of the central teachings of Christianity, especially the two you alluded to.

But even so, there is no shortage of Old Testament passages that proponents of religious violence and condemners of religious violence are both equally eager to quote. It would be more productive if, instead of quoting random passages in service of some agenda, those who express the desire to know what role religion really plays in society should seriously try to understand religious texts in context and as a whole. At the moment, popularisers of atheism are content to base their case on superficial quote-mining. In consequence, we see pointless exchanges of out-of-context Biblical verses with no discernible advantage beyond rhetorical appeal. There's just no substance. And unfortunately, if the New Atheists have shown us anything, it's that they're not interested in substance. If only all atheists were as respectable and intelligent as Peter Lupu.

By the way, I like your medication analogy a lot.

Bill,

You write:

The main source of the atheism of New Atheists is materialism or naturalism. The scientists among them are not content to do science, they want to make an ideology of it: scientism.

Too true. It reminded me of this fine quotation from a forgotten philosopher-statesman:

"Who would pay the slightest attention to naturalism if it did not force itself into the retinue of science, assume her livery, and claim, as a kind of poor relation, in some sort to represent her authority and to speak with her voice? Of itself it is nothing. It neither ministers to the needs of mankind, nor does it satisfy their reason. And if, in spite of this, its influence has increased, is increasing, and as yet shows no sign of diminution, if more and more the educated and the half-educated are acquiescing in its pretensions, and, however reluctantly, submitting to its domination, this is at least in part because they have not learned to distinguish between the practical and inevitable claims which experience has on their allegiance, and the speculative but quite illusory title by which the empirical school have endeavoured to associate naturalism and science in a kind of joint supremacy over the thoughts and consciences of mankind."

Arthur James Balfour, The Foundations of Belief, 8th ed. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1906), pp. 135-36.

"At the moment, popularisers of atheism are content to base their case on superficial quote-mining."

Curiously enough, this is also the tactic favored by religious fundamentalists, and which is called "proof-texting." It often seems as if they are mirror-images of each other.

+ + +
"The main source of the atheism of New Atheists is materialism or naturalism." and "whereas they are Brights, to use Dennett's self-congratulatory self-appellation."

I wonder if the main source might not be pride. Before the Brights, there were the Enlightened. And one of the propositions condemned in the Condemnation of 1277 was the proposition "that philosophers are the only wise people in the world."

+ + +
"That the Tamil Tigers are terrorists and call themselves Buddhists is beside the point."

IIRC, the Sinhalese fighting the Tigers are Buddhists. The Tamils that moved into Ceylon from Tamil Nadu and if they have a religion it is likely to be Hindu, although a fair percentage of Tamils are Christians. The Tamil Tigers organization is explicitly =secular=. They are the ones who invented suicide-bombing.

M Frank,

Thanks for the correction! I got confused and was wrong to suggest that the Tamil Tigers are Buddhists.

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