In his new book, The Meaning of Belief, philosopher Tim Crane argues that much of the anti-religious animus of atheists is largely motivated by the spectacle of religious violence in our day, typified by the events of 9/11/2001. Atheists such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris passionately denounce the violence done in the name of religion and conclude that religious belief is dangerous. If, like John Lennon, we imagine a world with no religion, are we imagining a better world?
Crane does not deny that there is religious violence, but he thinks that atheists tend to overstate the case. He makes the point, a staple of religious apologetic literature, that secular ideologies such as Nazism, Marxism/Leninism, and Maoism killed far larger numbers than religious violence. Crane is aware of the reply—one that I have made myself—that such ideologies are tantamount to secular religions. Crane’s objection is semantic. Such a reply, he says, stipulates a re-definition of “religion” that dismisses the element of transcendence and so turns on a notion that is vague and incorrect (p. 127). He concludes: “The idea that these systems of thought are in some sense ‘religious’ is a superficial maneuver that adds little value to this debate (p. 127).”
Yet there is an issue here that is not superficial, does not turn on semantics, and, if properly understood, adds significant value to the debate. To use a term as neutral as possible, belief-systems, whether religious (in Crane’s sense) or secular, often evince a totalizing tendency, that is, a pathological propensity to develop into all-encompassing dogmas that impose absolute demands on adherents, insisting that they be fanatical True Believers. When this happens such totalizing ideologies foster a kind of tribalism, an intense identification of members with an in-group and the exclusion of “others” who are regarded with suspicion and animosity. This syndrome, which involves the shutting-off of empathy and the dehumanizing of the out-groups, is studied by psychologists and neuroscientists. A good summary of their findings is in David Eagleman’s The Brain: The Story of You, Chapter Five.
Atheists may therefore argue that those ideologies that are religious, in Crane’s sense that they posit a transcendent and foster strong group identity, are, in virtue of those very features, particularly inclined towards the kind of pathological development that turns them into totalizing belief-systems. If my religion is the one that acknowledges the One True God then all others must be mistaken about this matter, a matter of supreme importance. Further, if my group is the one that correctly identifies the will of God and strives to live by it, then we are the faithful and all those who pursue other practices are mistaken, again a supremely important matter. Surely, atheists might plausibly argue, groups that evince such beliefs will tend to form very strong in-group identities and exclude all others as infidels. The road from there to religious intolerance and from there to religious violence is a short one.
As for secular philosophies like Marxism/Leninism, Maoism, or Nazism, they became totalitarian by adopting typical features of religious systems. For instance, like religion, they elevated a comprehensive set of dogmas to the status of absolute, unquestionable truth, and demanded submission to those dogmas in thought, word, and deed. They created a bureaucracy with coercive powers (e.g. the Gestapo, the NKVD) charged, like the Holy Inquisition, with enforcing orthodoxy and tracking down and punishing dissidents and heretics. These ideologies also elevated leaders like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao to cultic status and hedged them with a semi-divinity. When historians speak, for instance, of Stalin’s “cult of personality,” they are not employing metaphor. Therefore, interpreting these ideologies as secular religions, is not, as Crane thinks, merely a semantic maneuver.
There is no question that this is often the case. For instance, I think that many members of the “religious right” in this country adopt the “religious” label as a tribal identification, but what really motivates them is politics. This is shown by the alacrity with which they will drop their supposed religious values the moment they become politically inexpedient. A presidential candidate can boast about grabbing women by their genitals—surely behavior insupportable on any Christian principles—yet that candidate gets 80% of the evangelical vote. This suggests that so-called “values voters” are really just plain old power grabbers.
Religious violence, like all human behavior, is no doubt complexly caused, and much of what is labeled “religious” violence also has causes that are political, social, cultural, and economic. Nevertheless, religion often serves as the high-octane accelerant that turns a flame into a conflagration. “Religion makes everything worse,” Christopher Hitchens used to say. That is, when religious animus is added to an already bad situation, look out. Religion did not create hatred, but if you can be assured that God hates the same people you do, then you can hate with a clear conscience. Indeed, hatred becomes a religious duty. As Pascal noted, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
So, Crane is to be commended for pointing out the complexity of “religious violence,” a point that needs to be remembered when politicians and ideologues propose simplistic non-solutions like Muslim bans. Still, religion is often the “eye of newt” in the witches’ brew from which religious violence arises. It is historically ignorant and wrong, for instance, to single out Islam as a particularly violent religion, uniquely prone to extremism and fanaticism. On the other hand it is not Islam0phobic to note, what is obviously true, that extremist brands of Islamic theology do indeed motivate, excuse, and even command violence. If atheists like Hitchens or Harris overstate the problem, atheists like Crane understate it.