My friend and colleague Matthew Facciani over at his excellent blog According to Matthew has written an article called The Link Between Religion and Terrorism isn’t as Strong as Some Atheists Believe. The article touches on many points I have argued about before, but here I would like to argue directly against his arguments, and to set the record straight as long as it pertains to anti-theism, a position I hold.
In summary, I think Matthew’s arguments are based on facts, and yet they do not really conclude in the ultimate conclusion he reaches, that is, I agree with his premises, but I do not feel they mean the link between religion and terrorism, or un-secular violence, is not extremely strong. In addition to that I feel Matthew puts impossible hurdles before an anti-theist position – that is, his arguments expect the anti-theist to meet impossible criteria.
To do that, let’s look at the arguments Matthew raises, arguments I’m sure every anti-theist has encountered many times.
I have heard some atheists state that religion (especially Islam) causes violence by itself! More commonly among atheists is a bias that religion is some special thing that is the overwhelming deciding factor in violence and terrorism.
I would say that this is a fair representation of my position. Of course, personally, I’m more concerned with other ways religion is harmful. I’m concerned with how religion enables and aids sexism, anti-atheist hatred, transphobia, homophobia, and generally a traditional and tyrannical social hierarchy. I believe religion does play a significant role in all of these things.
But let’s see why we shouldn’t think so.
Their argument becomes factually wrong when the relationship between religion and violence is posited in a unidirectional fashion. The relationship between belief and behavior is extremely complicated and multidimensional.
The argument that religion causes violence is often justified by referencing terrorist acts in the name of Islam. To analyze such an argument, it is important to understand both radicalization and social identity theory. […] Social identity theory analyzes how group membership can shape personal identity. Importantly, radicalization can occur when one’s identity becomes conflated with any group’s identity. Furthermore, ideology can come from a variety of sources and is often difficult to separate from its political context. Thus, when the (religious) group is threatened, violence becomes a justified option for an individual because it affirms their sense of self.
Wait. Who said that?
Alright. Let’s assume someone has said that. They’re obviously wrong. But what does that mean? Does religion have to be the only factor for us to make such a claim? But that is impossible. In human societies, you cannot separate these factors so neatly. Many factors play a role.
He puts this at the end of his article, but it’s related to this argument:
While religious ideology coupled with other factors may lead to violence, it would be incorrect to suggest religious belief is some special entity that creates violent behavior by itself or is even the main factor. I hope this post forces some atheists to be more careful in their language when they discuss religious violence. Yes, religion can be a factor in causing violence, but it’s usually just one of many variables that can cause someone to do some pretty awful things.
Here, you can see what I alluded to before: Matthew expects the anti-theist to prove that religion is the only factor contributing to the dismal situation of our being, and if the anti-theist fails to prove that, it means that the link between religion and its social ills are weak.
But that is not so. We only have to prove that the link is there. We simply have to prove that the link exists. And it is there. The ideology of IS and Al-Qaeda is Islamic. The ideology of the Evangelica wing of the Republican party is… well… Evangelical. The Quiverfall is a cult.
IS would not be IS without Islam. Their reading of Islam, whether a “perversion” or not, is deeply rooted in the scripture and tradition of Islam, as equally as it is rooted in the climax of 21st century and the aftermath of Syrian civil war. You certainly wouldn’t have IS without the war in Syria. You certainly wouldn’t have it without Nouri Al Malaki’s ineffective governance of Iraq. You certainly wouldn’t have it without 2003 American invasion of Iraq. And, in addition to all of this, you would never have IS without their Islamic ideology.
And that, my dearest reader, is enough for this anti-theist to call the link between IS and Islam “strong”. As in, very strong. As in, I would not think that IS has any monopoly over how to interpret Islam, but I do think that there are many poisonous sprouts within Islamic community, scripture, tradition, and culture that are very likely to bloom into IS, and similar extremist groups.
If it helps, let’s argue about racism, instead of religion. Would Matthew – the social justice stalwart I know he is and I admire him for – argue in the same vein about racism? Would he say there’s no strong link between racism and Ferguson shootings because obviously there are other factors involved? Would he say that radicalization doesn’t work in the straightforward manner, so we can’t claim the link between KKK and racism is not strong?
Of course not, because it has become fashionable for people to pretend that they think racism is bad, while religion’s grip on the throat of society is much stronger, and we would use otherwise true and factual nuance to draw to conclusions too needlessly charitable to religion. The relationship between racism/religion and religiously motivated/racially motivated is not unidirectional, yet this doesn’t diminish their role, and it doesn’t mean that these ideologies are not very harmful to humanity.
We can prove that religion plays a special role in creating violence. Religion, in ways unique to itself and separate from other ideologies, divides people, shames people, and discriminates against people. Many forms of violence survive through religion only. Many forms of violence and tyranny are justified only by religion. No one can say a theocracy is like any other dictatorship.
Look at stoning, for example. It’s an inheritance Judaism left for its bastard child Islam. In many ways the nuances Matthew unfurls are true about stoning. Many religious people condemn it. Only poor backward countries use it. Only a certain segment of population uses it which is radicalized by many factors. It’s not even in the Qur’an. Yet, you can’t deny the central role of Islam in this practice. Religious authorities have justified it with hadith, they have preserved it, they have practiced it, even monopolized it.
In conclusion, Matthew’s nuances are true and interesting, but do not support his claim that religion doesn’t play the central and major role in the violence it inspires.
In his article Matthew creates another impossible condition for anti-theism:
This phenomenon (which may lead to terrorism) can occur outside of religious beliefs. […] Importantly, religious ideology is not some special main ingredient as we have seen people kill in the name of non-religious belief systems (communism) or to defend their country (nationalism). If we only look at religious belief, we are not able to see the whole picture of what is driving violent behavior. Taking into account social, psychological, and political factors allows us to greater understand any ideology, including religion.
Well, I’m glad to inform you as well as an anti-theist, I’m also an anti-nationalist.
The impossible implicit expectation here is that anti-theist must prove that religion is the only cause of violence not only in the violence it directly inspires, but in all the violence in the world. I guess Matthew thinks that we anti-theists think that if religion vanishes today, there will be no violence in the world.
The fact that other ideologies inspire violence doesn’t mean religion is not a major cause of violence. That’s like acquitting Jack because Walter also commits murder.
On Matthew Facciani’s Facebook wall, (the post is public), a person called Rob Curry makes this observation:
Nothing exists in isolation. If there were no religion, we would still have terrorism, only it would be tied to some screwed up secular ideologies, instead.
(1) How do you know? If nothing exists in isolation, then politics and terrorism don’t exist in isolation either. How can you know what would politics look like without religion? When talking about IS, there has never been a politics without religion. The divide between Sunni and Shiite is a political and a religious divide. If you remove religion from the Middle East, not a single aspect of it would remain the same.
(2) Yes, terrorism would still exist in a world without religion. Still the impossible roadblock and condition: would Baader-Meinhof exist without religion? Yes. Would Al-Qaeda and IS? No.
(3) Tied to some “screwed up ideology”, ergo “religion is screwed up”.
Which makes me sit back and ask myself, how can someone like Matthew believe this? How does his thought process moves from A to B, and why he doesn’t do the same thinking for racism and sexism?
Ultimately, if you are not an anti-theist, you have bought into the arguments of religious hegemony. Religious hegemony always provides a safe haven for it. No totalitarian ideology is monolithic, and no totalitarian ideology works in isolation, and the disappearance of no totalitarian ideology would turn the world into utopia. Matthew mentions communism but communism is much more diverse than religion and it has strains that are far more liberating than any progressive theology, and I have no problem saying that communism played a central role in the violence caused by Stalin and Pol Pot. Yet people feel comfortable treating only religion with kid gloves and making that connection between facts and weird assertions.
This is because of religious hegemony.
In our history, religion has either caused the tyrant to be tyrannical, or it has inspired him, or it has justified him, or it has provided a convenient excuse for him. And it has done all of these things. So we can confidently claim that religion has been a very harmful force in our human history, and it remains mainly an obstacle in the path of progress to this day. This is the ant-theist claim, and it will not be disproved by inconsequential fact that religion was not alone in its atrocities, or that other factors have contributed to those atrocities. Religion’s hands still remain unwashed from the bloods it has shed.
Image: by Gustave Doré, Joshua Burns the Town of Ai, 1866, public domain, via Wikimedia