Prejudice doesn’t look beyond anecdotes, but we should

Prejudice doesn’t look beyond anecdotes, but we should September 30, 2014

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I recently reread Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s Morality Without God,”[1. ref Sinnott-Armstrong is a philosophy professor at Duke, and I collaborate with him on a few projects.] a short and spectacularly nuanced look at religion and morality. While addressing arguments against the moral character of atheists, he manages to address a logical mistake many atheists seem to make in discussing religion. He reports a funny anecdote:

When Evelyn Waugh converted to catholicism, a fellow believer is said to have asked, “How can you be a Christian when you are such an asshole?” Waugh reportedly responded, “Just think how much worse an asshole I would be if I were not a Christian.”

Many atheist bloggers seem to miss this obvious point. In fact, it seems almost as if I could draft up a rough formula for a disturbing amount of blog fodder: (i) highlight heart-wrenching or terrible action taken by a religious believer, (ii) connect it to their religion, (iii) end with a self-satisfied reminder to never believe anyone who says religion makes you more moral, and (iv) comb the headlines the next day to repeat ad nauseam.

Sinnott-Armstrong goes on to explain more broadly the problem with this logic:

The lesson of this legend is that Christianity might have a positive influence on every believer’s life, even if some believers remain very bad. Hence, atheists cannot legitimately cite evil Christians as evidence that Christianity has no positive influence. By the same token, it is no more legitimate to cite evil atheists as evidence that atheism has no positive influence or that atheism is pernicious. Both theists and atheists are human, so in each group some will be good, and others will be bad. Which worldview is better overall cannot be solved by picking good individuals on your side or bad individuals on the opposing side, because your opponent can always return the favor.

What brought this passage and book to mind is the media attention given to Alton Nolen, a recent convert to Islam who beheaded a coworker late last week after he was fired. The media attention has, unsurprisingly, been often unflattering to Islam.

To be honest, I have no idea if Nolen did what he did because of his religion, and neither does anyone else. Workplace violence is extremely common—there are nearly 2 million cases every year, and 700 people on average are killed—and we have no idea what effect Islam had in this case.

The truth about violence is that it’s multiply realizable. If Nolen hadn’t converted to Islam in prison, maybe he would’ve looked at white murderers instead of ISIS for inspiration. Maybe he would have used a gun instead of a knife, and the story would never have made the news. Maybe he would have shot up a school instead of killing a coworker, and we’d have another national tragedy we’d treat like an abhorrent fluke. This is the fundamental problem with isolated cases—you never know how much worse an asshole they could have been.

There are more than two and a half million Muslims in the U.S., and if there was a causal relationship between Islam and violence, then you would see it (and not just in news headlines). Yet all we ever seem to have are anecdotes we eagerly lump in with a demographic we’re scared of.

Our culture doesn’t hold Christianity responsible when Christians murder, but it does for Islam. Our culture doesn’t hold whiteness responsible when white men murder, but it does for blackness. Prejudice tends to follow this pattern.

I’m reminded of how many atheists seize on the following statistic: 26% of young Muslim Americans polled said that suicide attacks could sometimes be justified. This is taken as evidence of the special depravity of Islam and therefore the danger that Muslims specifically provide. Yet no one seems too worried about the 43% of Americans with no religion who say that it’s sometimes justified for the military to target innocent civilians (compared to only 21% of Muslims). No one seems to worry about what young atheist men might be capable of.

Islamophobia is a controversial term, but I don’t know how else to describe this.

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