Answering Accusations Against Atheists: The Charge We Naively Blame All War On Religion

Answering Accusations Against Atheists: The Charge We Naively Blame All War On Religion January 6, 2010

In this post I want to address Chris’s problems with the tactics and arguments of internet atheists. In two previous posts I have rejected his assumption that not liking the tactics or particular arguments that particular atheists use is somehow a reason to reject the essential atheist position that there are no gods, and I have challenged his accusation that atheist organizations and internet debaters are “the new Bible Thumpers” and that atheists are just another “belief group” (where the implication I took from his use of this term was that he meant atheists held beliefs by faith).  Now I return to the portions of Chris’s post I have not yet addressed (you can read his whole comment here):

Furthermore I keep seeing more and more arguments and historical arguments taken out of context that seem just wrong. The most well known one is that “There’d be no wars” or “less suffering” without religion. These statements to be have always seemed like that person doesn’t really know humanity well, most wars fought even ones with religious overtones where done so with secular motives; in all reality man needs only the slightest inhabition to be removed in order to fight one another.

I cannot vouch for all atheists that none has been so loose and sloppy as to say that there’d “be no wars” if there were no religion, but I can say that in my experience nearly all the atheists who I read make the defensible point that if you eliminate religion you eliminate some of the motives for war and, more importantly, most of the motives for particular tactics like suicide bombing.  Sure, most wars, even those with religious overtones, have other political, social, and economic causes that would make them likely or inevitable regardless of the religious issues at stake.  But it’s also true that religion exacerbates the natural tendency to mistrust the Other who is outside one’s group by putting between communities faith-based beliefs which are unsupportable by reason and which people are ingrained to take as central to their identities and their worldviews.  It gives a barrier to common ground that in principle cannot be reasoned away.

Religion, or, more specifically, belief-based, “salvation”-oriented religions like Christianity and Islam, demand that the truest believers identify all those outside the faith as inherently lost for their non-acceptance of beliefs that are held only by faith.  Those outside the faith cannot even be rationally persuaded, they must submit their hearts and minds and join the faith community or they will forever be a heathen, apostate, or infidel.  This means that these two religions (or any two religions with similar demands for unsupportable beliefs) demand people orient their identities in a primary way around beliefs which will never be reconciled to each other.  Precisely what they have the least rational justification to believe they are expected to make most non-negotiable and the source of their most practically important beliefs—those that have to do with ethics, politics, and fundamental metaphysics and, even, science.

When you orient people’s fundamental identities around what is most arbitrary and idiosyncratic to their own culture, that which is least defensible to other rational people from contrary idiosyncratic cultures, you are priming them to have perpetual, and inherently rationally irresolvable conflicts between each other.  For as long as Muslims and Christians are encouraged to see Islam and Christianity as irrevocably central to their identities, the best they can hope for is to tolerate each other—they can never fundamentally accept a common source of ethical, political, and philosophical agreement.  Wherever they can find such agreements is where they share and agree to endorse common reason.  Insofar as they are guided by faith, they will be fundamentally prevented from agreement.

In some cases, of course, they may happen to agree where their faiths’ positions happen to coincide.  But these cases are relatively lucky and it is foolish to count on mutual understanding to be premised on them while there are inherently divisive, exclusivistic historical doctrines embedded in these religious traditions, institutions, and holy books that will logically lead them inevitably and repeatedly to see each other as fundamentally Other and not capable of reasoning from common ground simply as humans, each beholden only to the dictates of reason and healthy human emotions.

So philosophical and cultural conflict is inherent in all faith-based beliefs.  As much as liberals and some moderates restrict what they take on faith so that it causes as little practical conflict as possible, the traditions are rife with divisive dogmas and alienating rituals that repeatedly throughout history have reignited conflict.  And it’s not just between major religious traditions that this happens.  This division famously occurs within religions too as Muslims divide themselves into Sunni and Shi’a and Christians divide themselves into Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant, and as these factions further sub-divide, always based on beliefs which are unsettlable in principle and which make little to no direct impact on anyone’s life or ability to discover any tangible truths.

In the context of all of this, the human propensity for conflict is only exacerbated when this extra, rationally irresolvable barrier between people is culturally ingrained in people.  And then, worse, when the masters of war need to twist people’s hearts to their causes they have a people’s susceptibility to religious authoritarianism to exploit in making them into fanatical fighters.  And in the worst nightmare scenarios of all, religious beliefs sincerely held by drones can lead them to willingly commit suicide out of a belief death does not really apply to them and true believing leaders with apocalyptic fantasies and nuclear capabilities could very well embrace the obliteration of not only their enemies but themselves because they believe it is God’s will to end it all using their actions.  Such beliefs could have such unbelievably dire consequences which are unique to religious sorts of reasoning.  Atheists and other rationalists, even at their worst, would be bound by normal rules of self-interest which involve recognizing that they are mortal and factoring that into their judgments.

Finally, your suggestion that with the least inhibition removed people will tend towards war and conflict is too incomplete.  Modern game theory adequately refutes the notion.  In fact, Hobbes already had seen the limits of this thinking centuries ago.  Even conceding for arguments’ sake that people are inherently self-interested in all their actions, our self-interest regularly involves taking into account others’ interests since making enemies is quite often more counter-productive than making friends, even though sometimes making friends means sacrificing the ability to indulge our every whim.  Conflict which ultimately undermines our own interests is really not worth it to us.  Conflict with low risk and a high yield in improvement of our circumstances does interest us.   So, again, why introduce superfluous points of conflict by introducing phony conflicting interests (like converting members of contrary faiths or getting oneself into heaven or getting 72 virgins in exchange for murdering people) if you want people to be at peace?

And, yes, some people will suffer less in tangible ways if they do not have religion.  Of course, maybe some others would suffer more without it and that would have to be compensated for if they were to lose it.  But there’s nothing at all illogical or unfair about pointing out the benefits of rejecting religion—you lose a real social, political, and intellectual force that repeatedly combats and retards scientific progress, you would eradicate death by “faith healing” among those presently rejecting real medicine for prayer, you would remove the suffering of false guilt by undermining the basis of false, faith-based moralities, which demand more of people than is rationally necessary or things which are outright contrary to defensible moral reasoning, etc.

In closing:  There are good reasons to think that religion inherently promotes unnecessarily irresolvable intellectual conflict which leads to unnecessary irresolvable political conflict in some cases.  And in other cases the dogmatically obedient mindset can be harnessed by the belligerent as an incredible tool for mobilizing the rationally enslaved for war and, even, suicide.  And there are specific ways that religion leads to unnecessary suffering just like any other form of systematic irrationalism leads to pain when it hinders one’s ability to accept and cope with the world as it actually is.  Would the death of faith by itself end all wars or alleviate all sufferings?  Well, of course not.   But that does not mean it will not take away a sometimes crucial incentive to war and cause of needless suffering.  It’s not utopian to oppose religion for its complicity in creating and exacerbating conflicts.  And one can oppose religion while not believing that doing so is a panacea for all our problems.  No one thinks we shouldn’t cure cancer just because people would still then die of heart disease.  We want to end cancer because it’s bad in itself.  Same with religion.  We’ll work on the other unnecessary or excessively dangerous causes of conflict on their own terms too.

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