Saturday, June 7, 2008

Religion and violence?

Take a look at this article: Too Much Faith in Faith. Alan Jacobs argues that it is not necessarily religion that causes people to behave violently or abuse power. Often, people are simply lying about their motivations.
Yet when someone does something nasty and claims to have done it in the name of religion, our leading atheists suddenly become paragons of credulity: If Osama bin Laden claims to be carrying out his program of terrorism in the name of Allah and for the cause of Islam, then what grounds have we to doubt him? It's not like anyone would lie about something like that as a strategy for justifying the unjustifiable, is it?

Though it may seem ironic for a Christian to be saying this, it's time to talk less about the power of religion and remember instead the dark forces in all human lives that religious language is too often used to hide.
The main problem with the article is that Alan Jacobs acts as if this is a new idea that no one thought of before. I'd consider it a venerable opinion of the intersection of religion and politics. It is a view that many atheists have already considered, or even agree with. I agree too, at least more than I disagree.

And since this view has been around awhile, there are plenty of objections already out there. Here's a comment by Ebonmuse that illustrates a typical response:
Yes, I can imagine what people would be capable of if they did not believe in God. They would be capable of building a peaceful world of reason where our mutual differences are set aside in the name of our common humanity. Religion is not the only cause of our ills, but as long as it divides us, and as long as people think their dogmas are more important than other people's freedom and happiness, the killing you refer to will never end. Atheism is not the solution to all our problems, but it is definitely the solution to one of the bigger ones.
Another view from Greta Christina:
Many defenders of religion do the exact same thing -- only in reverse. They point to people like King and Gandhi to show what a positive force religion is in the world... but then argue that the Bin Ladens and Torquemadas of the world would have acted exactly the same without religion.
But enough relying on authorities. Here's my take:

The fact is that many people use religion to justify violence. In all likelihood, the underlying causes of the violence are, whether they know it or not, political or social factors, not religious factors. And yet, people still use religion as a justification. Why? Is it because religion is especially good at "justifying the unjustifiable"? Whatever the reason, it doesn't speak well of religion.

In any case, this is not the sort of argument I like to use against religion. Just because a few adherents do something bad doesn't mean a whole lot. If we just look at religious violence, it's too difficult to sort out all the other possible causes. And then we might just forget about all the non-violent problems with religion. I prefer to criticize religion on rational grounds, not political ones--that way it becomes much clearer which parts of religion are bad, and what we can do to improve upon them.

On an unrelated note, I found this quote from the article wonderfully ironic.
I would counsel our contemporary atheists to study some of their more consistently skeptical ancestors: George Orwell, for instance, who exposed the fundamental and incorrigible dishonesty of most political speech in his great essay "Politics and the English Language."
Did he just "counsel" atheists by appealing to authority? Incidentally, I already happen to think Orwell's famous essay was overrated. I just thought it was amusing how Jacobs' counsel backfired.

1 comment:

DeralterChemiker said...

You say, "In all likelihood, the underlying causes of the violence are, whether they know it or not, political or social factors, not religious factors." Do not forget heredity. Our DNA points us in a general direction, and our reactions to our environment are circumscribed by the effects of our DNA.