On Pushing Back

The recent violence in Lebanon, as well as the worsening sectarian bloodshed in Iraq, that have dominated the headlines in recent weeks remind us of the sheer unending vindictiveness of religious warfare. Indeed, of all the worst trouble spots in the world either currently or in recent memory – Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland, India and Pakistan, Sudan – religion has played a major causative role in virtually every one. The defenders of religion assert that it has brought into the world much good that would not have existed otherwise, and perhaps this is true, but it is undeniable that it has also brought into the world a vast amount of war, bloodshed and violence, including some of the worst violence in our species’ history. Religious hatred tends to be transmitted undiminished down through the generations in a way that few other kinds of hatred are, and the degree of commitment many people hold for their religious beliefs unfortunately makes it all too easy to justify oppressing and attacking those who believe differently.

The nagging question in all such conflicts is how they began. Who threw the first stone, so to speak? Although the answer matters little to resolving these conflicts, it seems to matter greatly when it comes to apportioning blame. Whenever fighting breaks out, partisans on both sides usually assert that they were acting in good faith, while the other side initiated hostilities unprovoked and forced them to defend themselves.

Strange as it sounds, both sides in these battles may be both wrong and right. A recent article from the New York Times, “He who cast the first stone probably didn’t“, discusses a study that sheds some light on the ancient roots of modern violence:

In a study conducted by Sukhwinder Shergill and colleagues at University College London, pairs of volunteers were hooked up to a mechanical device that allowed each of them to exert pressure on the other volunteer’s fingers.

The researcher began the game by exerting a fixed amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. The first volunteer was then asked to exert precisely the same amount of pressure on the second volunteer’s finger. The second volunteer was then asked to exert the same amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. And so on.

…The results were striking. Although volunteers tried to respond to each other’s touches with equal force, they typically responded with about 40 percent more force than they had just experienced. Each time a volunteer was touched, he touched back harder, which led the other volunteer to touch back even harder. What began as a game of soft touches quickly became a game of moderate pokes and then hard prods, even though both volunteers were doing their level best to respond in kind.

Each volunteer was convinced that he was responding with equal force and that for some reason the other volunteer was escalating.

As the article explains, the reason for this seems to be that people have direct access to their own sensations, but not to the sensations of others. Therefore, although each volunteer can directly feel the discomfort the other inflicts on them, they cannot feel, and therefore cannot accurately gauge, how much force they are exerting in return. Of course, a person’s own pain, which they can directly perceive, feels more significant to them than the pain of another, which they cannot, and this leads both of them to a continual escalation.

In light of this study, the question of “which side started” a religious war may not just be irrelevant, but may literally have no answer. It is very likely that, in many of these conflicts, the initial provocation was something that was not even intended as a provocation by the group that did it, but was interpreted as such by the group that received it. That group may have then retaliated with what they thought was equal force, but was actually greater force, thus provoking the initial group to strike back even harder – and so on ad infinitum, as the conflict perpetually escalates in a series of steps that are each viewed as a fair and deserved retribution by the perpetrating side but as an even greater insult by the recipient side. Extrapolated over hundreds of years, this cycle results in the bloody quagmires of religious warfare that are now playing out in so many places across the world.

Alas, there is now no straightforward solution to troubles such as these, any more than there is a straightforward way to reassemble a glass once it has been shattered. A lessening of religious belief among both sides would probably not end most of these conflicts, since most of them have taken on political, racial or nationalistic dimensions as well. However, it undeniably would help cool the flames of anger that have burned so hot, and take away one of the major and perpetually recurring justifications for almost any kind of violence: the belief that God has marked the other side as inferior and desires them to be subjugated. But what might help even more would be if both sides were to accept the humanistic principles of universal utilitarianism. Its key teaching that all people’s happiness matters the same would, if believed and practiced by both sides, be a strong counter to the regrettably natural human tendency to view one’s own pain and suffering as more significant than those of others.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Mikidu

    It’s certainly true that religion adds fuel to the fires of racism and nationalism, so the elimination of the religious element would seem to be a desirable goal. However, atheism as the rational alternative, appeals only to a small sector of enlightened thinkers mainly in the Western world and has little if anything to offer those that live in miserable third world conditions. A great many inhabitants of third world nations are sustained in their miserable lives by the belief in something far better in the hereafter. They are prepared to endure the hardships that life offers them on promise of a far greater reward. If it were the case that these people were to be convinced that their religious beliefs were false and there was no afterlife, that they had to make the most of the here and now, then I imagine this could well lead to a far greater incidence of civil unrest (and possibly war) than we see at the present time. It seems that while religion can fan the flames of hatred and add to world strife, it has a secondary function that keeps the masses in their place by offering them false promises for the future. As long as the majority of people believe in those false promises, the status quo is more or less maintained.

  • Christopher

    Humans, by their very nature, are contencious animals: they have an innate attraction to conflict. As much as I despise this overgrown beast known as religion, I must admit that it is simply a vehicle through which man’s primal tendencies are expressed rather than the cause of them. The reason for this: people see themsevles as parts of groups (families, factions, clans, etc…) rather than as part of a species. This leads people to value the group that they are part of more than other humans, and thus are willing to sacrifice members of other groups to further the agenda of their own. Contrary to what we Americans were taught in school, all men are NOT created equal.

    Even if religion disappeared entirely from our species, we would still find something to fight about. After all, if these groups stopped fighting they would lose their individual identities, see each other as more or less equal, and, in time, merge; something that the heads of the groups will fight with their dying breath! If the groups lose their identities, they will lose power as well- and no leader will ever willingly allow that to happen…

  • http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com Alonzo Fyfe

    Actually, these facts are the main motivator for the principle of having disputants present their case before an impartial judge and letting the judge/jury hand down a decision. Even in ancient times it was known that individuals tend to favor themselves in judgment and to demand more from others than strict justice would allow.

    This set up endless feuds that were destructive to society. To end this violence and to get people back into peaceful and productive disputes, ancient tribes told its citizens, “You shall be required to submit your case before a judge (magistrate, noble) who will decide the issue and agree to live with that decision.

    Even if judges were not always free of corruption, the reduced violence of submitting to such a system was worth the price.

    Where cultures do not agree to have their disputes resolved in a court of law, situations arise like that in Iraq, with a constant chain of blood feuds that is now killing more than 100 people per day.

    The solution for such a situation is for the people to say, “Henceforth we resolve our disputes in court before a judge, not on the streets with private armies.”

    If they want peace, then this is what they must do.

    Unfortunately, the Bush Administration itself has become a party that has decided that the courts are unnecessary. Both at home and abroad the Bush Administration has abandoned the idea that it should submit its decisions to a neutral third party to determine that they are fair and just — that the Administration itself will be the sole judge of the merits of its own cases. This weakens respect for the rule of law at home and abroad. The cost of this arrogance is continued and escalating bloodshed.

  • Archi Medez

    Ebonmuse, a “touching” article. Seriously, though, it is thought-provoking.

    My first impression was that this is a kind of biologically based self-serving bias that would have some natural selection advantages. On the other hand this is complicated by the fact that through much our our recent evolutionary history we have lived in social groups where, at least within groups, there is also a selection advantage for some level cooperation, de-escalation of conflicts, etc. What we are seeing with this finger-prodding experiment could be evidence of a much more primitive (possibly pre-mammalian) tendency, simply due to this bias whereby we seem to over-estimate the physical pain inflicted upon us and underestimate it when it is inflicted on others. In other words, our ability to empathize with others’ pain (at least for physical pain) short-changes the others.

    One unanswered question (and I didn’t follow the original scientific article to check) is ‘Was there a natural de-escalation for most participants where they (or one person initiating) got to the point where they began using excess force?’ I suspect for ethical reasons they’d have to stop the experiment if things got violent, so we may not be able to find out. Nevertheless, in many natural circumstances, there would probably be a de-escalation. (And that raises another question about the study, which is ‘Did the researchers give the participants the option of stopping/withdrawing from the game?’ That wasn’t clear…of course it is a news article, not a journal article. Usually participants are given the right to withdraw at any time, but that’s not quite the same as actually including instructions in the game about stopping it).

    Another analogy: Many people may know couples who argue a lot. If you’ve ever watched in discomfort at the escalation, it is reminiscent of this touching experiment.

    ______________________________

    There were some other issues about the article with which I didn’t quite agree. For example, I think it matters from a moral standpoint who first resorts to violence. The issue of the amount of force used in the retaliation is important too. However, I view the transition from a non-violent state of affairs, even non-violent conflict (argument, debate, even insult), to violent conflict to be a critical one.* At some point, generally one party crosses that threshold before the other, and I think we need to hold that person who crosses that threshold responsible for “starting it.”

    * This is not to say that violent conflict is always more damaging than non-violent (e.g., a vicious slander could cost somebody their job, whereas a punch in the face may leave one with no more than a bruise).

    ______________________________________________

    I don’t agree with Daniel Gilbert’s (author of the NYT article) passing comments on the Middle east conflict. It’s easy to see these conflicts as just endless tit-for-tat. But I think it does matter who starts these cycles of violence, and with careful scrutiny of the situation we can figure out how to aportion blame in each instance. Regarding the most recent conflict, Gilbert wrote this…

    “When the European Union condemned Israel for bombing Lebanon in retaliation for the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers,”

    …I thought that this would be like misreporting the amount of pressure applied initially in that finger-pressing experiment. While the Israel-Hizballah conflict has gone on for decades, this most recent exchange of violence “began” (i.e., the point when one side initiated violence and the other responded) after Hizballah (a), having created extensive bunkers and built up caches of rockets all over southern Lebanon, had launched rockets into Israel, striking civilian areas and threatening civilians; (b) crossed into Israel and killed several Israeli soldiers (I think 8 were killed in that incident), and ( c ) kidnapped 2 Israeli soldiers (in the same incident as (b)). Hizballah’s stated grievance pertained to prisoners who’ve been in Israeli jails for years now (Israel says those were terrorists). Now, were Hizballah’s actions justified, even if most of those prisoners were innocent (which is unlikely)? No, because Hizballah was clear enough in their intentions to actually instigate a conflict, to actually force Israel’s hand by not only killing soldiers (clearly an act of war) but by launching rockets at Israeli civilians with the hopes of killing as many of them as possible. All of this happened before Israel responded. So, with regard to this recent conflict, we can say that Hizballah “started it.” It does matter who started it, especially when the side which starts it (i.e, Hizballah) does so with the explicit aim of forcing an escalation in the conflict and aiming to cause civilian deaths on both sides.

  • Christopher

    Alonzo, no social group sees things that way because all that they are ultamately concered with is the agenda of the group! If people must die for the agenda to be fulfilled, the group shall willingly make the sacrifice. They will never allow a third-party arbitor into the fray unless ALL groups in the conflict were too badly damaged to continue fighting (a rare occurence in history).

    And even if (by some miricle) all conflicting societies decided to allow third-party arbitration, all of them would go out of their way to sway the arbitor towards their agendas. The methods would include (but are not limited to) bribery, blackmail, and threats directed at personal saftey. In the end, a truley impartial arbitor would be impossible because it would be propositioned at every turn, tainting it’s final decision!

    No matter what measures we take to limit humanity’s voilent tendencies, they WILL manifest. So we may as well allow the to manifest in the open rather than letting them fester and grow strong hidden behind the facade of impartiality…

  • Mikidu

    I think Christopher is right. Sadly, humanity in general seems reluctant to accept decisions on disputes from an independent judge or umpire. We see this all the time even in what we call civilized Western countries. In civil disputes, more often than not, a losing party at law will not accept a decision against them and will go to appeal and pursue the matter right through the legal system until they get the result they want. In International affairs, countries generally show a reluctance to accept resolutions imposed by the United Nations unless of course they are in their favor, and will continue to defy and ignore these resolutions. Even under the force of sanctions or threatened military action, some nations continue to defy United Nations resolutions. It seems that a battle to the death is ultimately the only method many are prepared to accept as a means of conflict resolution.

  • Philip Thomas

    Well, I prefer third-party abitration to death. I don’t really see how letting people kill each other helps anything, if that is what you mean by “letting people’s violent natures manifest them in the open”. There may be smouldering resentment, but at least everyone’s still alive…

  • Christopher

    But for how long Phil? People will only surpress their primal urges for so long; and when they finally come out, they will come out in full force! Third-party arbitrators can’t stop the bloodshed, only delay it until a day when one (or more) social group finds a way to over-power the arbitor. And when (not “if”, when) the arbiter is no longer effective, what will keep that social group from overtaking the others?

    The answer: the other groups will have grown weak (there would be no reason to be strong because that would be the arbitor’s job) and won’t be able to resist the rouge social group. As regrettable as open warfare between factions is, the alternative is a Pandora’s box I’d rather not open. This beast called man can’t be tamed, so we might as well adapt to it’s nature.

  • peep

    As much as i think that the religion as theology–as taking god ideas too seriously– is intellectually lazy and stifles education, I wonder if it really deserves all the credit you give it for starting wars. You seem to claim that political, racial, nationalistic dimensions follow the initial religious religious impetious for the conflicts, but those or other reasons could as easily have been the first spark, and the religious differences were noticed and became important later. And of course, religion, nationality, race, and some aspects of politics are all transmitted primarily the same way–from parents to children. So at the very least, anything that correlates with religious differences will strongly correlate with national, racial, and some types of political differences–these 4 categories can become interchangeable for people who aren’t thinking too hard about it.

    Of course, religion is offered as a popular excuse for violence; and it’s been a useful way for authoritarians to pull their subjects together, and tell them who the enemies are; and maybe the mental habits that allow people to take silly religious myths seriously also make it harder to wonder if a particular war is really in their own best interest, or maybe just in the priests’ best interests, or the kings. But it doesn’t seem that religions are the only institutions that have been abused that way through history, and it definitely isn’t obvious to me that godiness is directly and inevitably responsible for widespread wars, violence, bloodshed, etc. except in a few cases like the Inquisition, fatwas, and other cases that could as easily be interpreted as instances of church leaders attacking political enemies. I don’t mean to be splitting hairs here, I just mean again that it’s not necessarily ideas about god that are motivating any violence or hatred, it’s worldly concerns of people who maintain their power by talking about god, and if we could wave our wand and make everyone stop caring about religion, the religious divisions could easily be replaced by other differences.

    Alright, in the real world, religion is the institution that is best at stifling independent and rational thought, but it’s not the only one. It’s a great example of how not to make important decisions, and deserves plenty of criticism. But it doesn’t hurt to always remember that if your goals are stopping senseless and counterproductive violence, alleviating suffering, promoting individual happiness, liberty, and wealth, and education–well, be careful using religion as a shorthand for the things that are really wrong with the world; it might be ok if we have a little “religion” left over, as long as it encourages freethought and is willing and eager to find, admit, and correct its mistakes.

    And by this point, i have no idea whether what i just wrote is coherent or not:/

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    If it were the case that these people were to be convinced that their religious beliefs were false and there was no afterlife, that they had to make the most of the here and now, then I imagine this could well lead to a far greater incidence of civil unrest (and possibly war) than we see at the present time.

    I touched on this in my recent post “No Heavens“. It’s true that if we take away people’s religious beliefs and offer them no alternative, we can’t expect the outcome to be a good one. However, I wouldn’t propose that. Instead, I think any concerted deevangelism effort would have to be accompanied by a strong promotion of the benefits of humanism, as well as whatever material help and assistance these societies require to ease the pressures that fuel violence and fanaticism.

    As much as I despise this overgrown beast known as religion, I must admit that it is simply a vehicle through which man’s primal tendencies are expressed rather than the cause of them.

    One unanswered question (and I didn’t follow the original scientific article to check) is ‘Was there a natural de-escalation for most participants where they (or one person initiating) got to the point where they began using excess force?’ I suspect for ethical reasons they’d have to stop the experiment if things got violent, so we may not be able to find out. Nevertheless, in many natural circumstances, there would probably be a de-escalation.

    Interestingly, my answer to both these comments is similar. Yes, there are de-escalation mechanisms (although as you said, Archi Medez, it’d be unethical to push this experiment to the point where they’d have to come into play), and yes, religion serves to magnify existing grievances. However, in both cases, I point out, religion has likely made the violence more intense and longer-lasting. By encouraging tribalistic and xenophobic impulses and giving a handy excuse to think of one’s enemies as less than human, religion amplifies whatever evil tendencies exist in human nature and often makes conflicts far worse than they might otherwise have been.

    For example, I think it matters from a moral standpoint who first resorts to violence.

    From a moral standpoint, yes. From a practical standpoint, however, it doesn’t matter greatly. After all, we need to stop the killing now, by whatever means necessary. Finding out who’s responsible doesn’t help us to do that; it may well be impossible, since the roots of the Israeli conflict stretch back a long, long way.

    No matter what measures we take to limit humanity’s voilent tendencies, they WILL manifest. So we may as well allow the to manifest in the open rather than letting them fester and grow strong hidden behind the facade of impartiality…

    I don’t think humanity has violent tendencies that are so intrinsic they can’t be eliminated, and I don’t agree with pessimist rhetoric like this. As bad as the world may seem at the moment, if one studies human history, there is a clear trend of improvement. In most Western cultures, we no longer settle disputes through bloodshed, duels or familial vengeance; for the most part, there is a rule of law, and it works. I see no reason why we cannot extend this state of affairs to the whole world. Violent fundamentalism may be the greatest obstacle, but we have overcome it in the past and we can continue to do so.

  • Archi Medez

    Finding out who’s responsible doesn’t help us to do that; it may well be impossible, since the roots of the Israeli conflict stretch back a long, long way.

    If we go back to the beginning, Muslims first spread out from Arabia and conquered many areas, including the area that is now Israel, by force. This was purely an imperialistic enterprise. That applies to “who started it” between the Muslims and the Jews in that region. The answer is simple: The Muslims started it.

    Regarding the practical importance of who started it, I would say it does matter from the standpoint of international law and the prosecution of crimes. It also matters from the standpoint of understanding the conflict, and the key role of Muslim extremists’ adherence to jihadist ideology in manufacturing crises specifically for the purpose of perpetuating that conflict.

    It will not be possible to stop the conflict unless the jihadist ideology is defeated, and replaced by thinking that permits the use of modern (political, diplomatic) conflict resolution mechanisms.

    However, in both cases, I point out, religion has likely made the violence more intense and longer-lasting. By encouraging tribalistic and xenophobic impulses and giving a handy excuse to think of one’s enemies as less than human, religion amplifies whatever evil tendencies exist in human nature and often makes conflicts far worse than they might otherwise have been.

    Yes. Religion, at least in this case, adds another source of social division. I have read about social psych experiments where simply dividing people into two groups based upon some arbitrary feature actually leads to all kinds of conflict between the members of groups A and B. Certain religions, or hard-line interpretations of religions, go much further to build up a whole theory of demonization of out-group members. I see this as a problem arising from ideologies (incl. political ideologies) generally, but religion in particular tends to emphasize the irrational modes of handling disputes. Certainly, the concepts of diplomacy and rationality are not well-developed in the major religions.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    If we go back to the beginning, Muslims first spread out from Arabia and conquered many areas, including the area that is now Israel, by force. This was purely an imperialistic enterprise. That applies to “who started it” between the Muslims and the Jews in that region. The answer is simple: The Muslims started it.

    But couldn’t one equally well go back even farther and say that the Israelites forcibly conquered the area away from its original inhabitants, as recorded in the Old Testament?

  • Archi Medez

    “But couldn’t one equally well go back even farther and say that the Israelites forcibly conquered the area away from its original inhabitants, as recorded in the Old Testament?”

    Yes (if this is historically true), although I was referring to Jewish vs Muslim conflict.

  • Christopher

    In response to Ebonmuse:

    “I don’t think humanity has violent tendencies that are so intrinsic they can’t be eliminated, and I don’t agree with pessimist rhetoric like this. As bad as the world may seem at the moment, if one studies human history, there is a clear trend of improvement. In most Western cultures, we no longer settle disputes through bloodshed, duels or familial vengeance; for the most part, there is a rule of law, and it works. I see no reason why we cannot extend this state of affairs to the whole world. Violent fundamentalism may be the greatest obstacle, but we have overcome it in the past and we can continue to do so”

    This “rule of law” you elude to is a farce. Laws are tools of human beings to impose their rule on a society, nothing more or less. Who makes the laws the govern us? A bunch of upper-class elites (mostly businessmen and lawyers) who are involved in govt. to see that their best interests are served, not those of the average joe!

    Note: as much as I hate the system as it is, I DO acknowledge the need for some kind of order to exist to prevent society from collaping into total anarchy. But it doesn’t change the fact that this society is becoming increasingly intrusive…

    While it’s true that most people no longer settle disputes through open duels, violence in western cultrue is far from dead. Go to any neighborhood in L.A., Chicago, or any other major city and you’ll see the effects of street wars between many groups of people that have a lot in common. The violence hasn’t disappeared, it simply changed forms and now moves primarily through the under-class instead of the upper-class.

    My point is this: mankind is a violent and selfish beast. But, unlike you, I see these traits as positives rather than negatives. We ascended to the top of the food chain through violence (destroying all the other hominds) and have acquired the resources neccisary to construct powerful societies through violence; so they do serve us well (from an evolutionary perspective. In fact, I encourage these traits because they make us strong.

    My fear is that we may lose them while some other society retains them, and then learns how to properly use them against us! We must retain these things so, if for no other reason, we may effectively fight back against those who mean us harm…