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Religion and war: evidence and misinformation

July 15th, 2014

Fighter plane

It’s a common theme of atheist critiques of religion: religion causes war and mass killing.

And yet the historical evidence shows something different.

The claims

Here are just a couple of the claims:

we see religion regularly used for war, mass murder, terrorism, and even genocide

About.com

More wars have been waged, more people killed, and more evil perpetrated in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history. The sad truth continues in our present day.

When Religion Becomes Evil, p1, Charles Kimball

The historical evidence

These are the historical studies I have been able to find that make estimates of the contribution of religion to war and mass killing.

Study Time period No of events considered Percentage due to religion
University of Bradford 3,000 years 73 10%
Encyclopedia of Wars
(Phillips & Axelrod)
5,000 years 1763 7%
The Encyclopedia of War (Martel) 2,500 years Many 6%
Matthew White 2,000 years 16 18% of deaths

Books

Several books address this issue without estimating numbers. Five of them don’t consider religion as a major cause of war (the major causes are competition for land and resources and abuse of political power). Four explore the links between religion and war, but appear to assume the connection and try to explain it rather than offer any historical analysis of the prevalence of religious wars.

Conclusions

  1. Religion has not been a major cause of many wars, though it has been responsible for some, and can provide support for governments or dictators who have chosen to go to war for other reasons.
  2. Regimes with non-religious (including overtly atheist) ideologies have been responsible for far more deaths than regimes with religious ideologies.
  3. Religious, non-religious and anti-religious ideologies are most dangerous when allied with the power of powerful and violent states.
  4. Most wars are motivated by power and greed, not beliefs.
  5. Studies also show that religion is not the major cause of modern terrorism either.

Why the misinformation?

These studies provide clear evidence, based on expert historical analysis, that religion is not a cause of many of the wars throughout history or in our lifetime. It is sometimes implicated, but the main causes lie elsewhere. Atheism and overtly atheistic regimes have been responsible for more deaths than religion (and specifically christianity) and regimes with a religious basis.

But the main causes of war don’t lie in ideology at all, whether religious or not.

Those who promote the connection between religion and war have apparently assumed it without doing their homework.

Read more

This question is discussed more fully in Does religion cause wars?, which provides references to all the studies and books mentioned briefly here.

Photo Credit: Riv via Compfight cc.

10 Comments

  1. “Atheism and overtly atheistic regimes have been responsible for more deaths than religion..”

    I agree that it is unfair and misguided to claim that religion has caused the majority of wars, genocide, and etc. but I also think it’s just as unfair to claim that atheism is responsible for more deaths than religion. I would agree that atheistic regimes have caused more death if that is the case but I doubt it was atheism that drove such behavior or was a reason why atheistic regimes preformed atrocities. If anything it was greed, power, and political/social ideology that were probably the reasons for such atrocities. It takes more than an affirmation against the existence of god to get people to kill. Atheism alone doesn’t cause war, genocide, and etc. so I think your quote above is slightly wrong.

  2. Hi Terrell, thanks for your comment.

    I tried to be fair in all my comments. We cannot really say that any worldview – religion or atheism, for example – have caused any deaths or wars. People cause these things.

    But it remains true that governments or regimes do start wars, and some of them identify as religious or atheistic regimes, or the people in them identify as religious or atheistic, though we cannot say how much religion or atheism influenced them.

    I think you are right that I could clarify further for both religious and atheistic regimes, and I have edited the words slightly. See if you think it is fair now.

    But I think you are mistaken about the possibility of atheism per se being a motivation for killing. In his book ‘The Twilight of Atheism’ Alister McGrath references a 1922 letter by Lenin which urges “the protracted use of brutality” to force the populace to embrace atheism (not communism!).

    Wikipedia reports: “In 1967, Enver Hoxha’s regime conducted a violent campaign to extinguish religious life in Albania; by year’s end over two thousand religious buildings were closed or converted to other uses, and religious leaders were imprisoned and executed.”

    I didn’t mention those examples in my post because I don’t think they are typical, but while most atheists would not agree with those actions, it seems that some atheists do kill for the sake of atheism or anti-religion.

  3. Hello unkleE,

    Thank you for the response. I feel that this particular blog post has been entirely fair except for the quote in my initial comment that I took issue with and still take issue with. I also take issue with some comments made in your reply. I particularly take issue with your comments regarding Lenin, Hoxha, and atheism. If we want to talk about motivations then I feel it’s proper to ask why Lenin wanted the populace to embrace atheism in the first place. It seems that Lenin was against anything that didn’t conform to his political ideology which includes religion and a belief in God which is motivation for one to force the populace being governed to affirm atheism according to Lenin. Therefore, it is not atheism that is at the root of what drove him to believe that the populace should be forced to affirm atheism but his political ideology. Lenin was also a revolutionary which means that he believed violence was an appropriate means to an end (the state being the end in his case) and atheism does not entail that belief whatsoever. A similar question could be asked of Enver Hoxha’s motivations. Did he want to stamp out religion for the sake of atheism or was there a political motivation behind it? Hoxha was a Marxist-Leninist himself so it seems that Hoxha’s motivations for stamping out religion are not too different from Lenin’s. Hoxha seemed to believe that the only religion of Albania was “Albanianism” which is a clear indication of nationalism which in turn demonstrates a political ideology at the root of why Hoxha was against religion. Hoxha seemed to think that religion, as a whole, divided the nation which is another indication of political motivation to stamp out religion. There is a stark difference between wanting to force people to affirm atheism for political reasons and atheism being one’s motivation to force people to be atheists. The latter is false with regards to Lenin and Hoxha while the former seems more accurate. Thus, I do not feel the quotations regarding Lenin and Hoxha help your case that people kill for the sake of atheism. Now, a person could in principle state that their motivation to kill was for the sake of atheism but how could someone come to such a conclusion? Atheism doesn’t entail killing whatsoever so how does killing for the sake of atheism make any sense? In other words, what is it that gets people from atheism to killing when the two do not logically entail each other? I would say that one would have to have some other reasons to justify using violence as a means to fill in the logical gap between atheism and violence but I am more interested in what you have to say about this. Also, being anti-religion does not entail atheism or vice versa. One could believe in God but still be anti-religion and one could be atheist but not anti-religion. I myself am an atheist but I am generally not anti-religion.

    Lastly, I want to say that what I say about atheism is the same for religion. A particular religion could in principle promote violence just as Lenin’s revolutionary ideology promotes violence but religion in no way shape or form entails violence. I also believe that there is a logical gap that must be filled in between religion and violence to get someone to justify violence on religious grounds.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Lenin#Political_ideology

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enver_Hoxha#Religion

  4. Hi Terrell. I appreciate what you say and the way in which you say it. I think we may be able to resolve some of our apparent differences so I think this topic merits further discussion if you are willing.

    I think the main problem is that you and I are talking about slightly different things.

    Your discussion here centres around whether atheists like Lenin and Hoxha were motivated to kill by their atheism or something else. You point out that atheism per se doesn’t entail killing believers, and you suggest that there must be some other factor that leads some atheists to kill while most don’t. You suggest that the same would apply to religious people.

    I have a lot of agreement with this view. We don’t know people’s inner motivations (we cannot be sure even if they tell us, for they may not tell all, or they may not even understand their own motivations).

    But contrary to what you say, I would say that means we can’t know that Lenin, Hoxha and others weren’t motivated by their atheism either. It remains an unknown. Likewise the inner motivations of the supposedly christian invaders of the Americas remain unknown to us.

    For these reasons, my post didn’t discuss inner motivations, and this is where I think there has been misunderstanding between us. I focused on outward actions, which can be reasonably discerned, and have been objectively assessed in the various sources I quoted.

    Based on these external actions, we can say that (1) most wars seem to be caused not by ideology (whether religious or not) but by greed, disputes over territory, etc; (2) some wars and mass killings do seem to have been supported by ideologies, both atheist and religious, or by people espousing those ideologies; and (3) more killings have resulted from actions of people who self identified as atheists than by people who self identified as christian.

    I think those are all factual statements based on the sources, but they say nothing about inner motivation, only the association with stated ideology and actions.

    I think it would be better to not try to blame ideologies for what people do supposedly in the name of the ideology. But unfortunately, people are already doing this. High profile atheists such as the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Steven Weinberg and many others have made strong claims about the evils of religion. Contrary to their stated ideal of basing everything on evidence, their views are contrary to the best evidence. That is why I have written this post.

    Has this brief discussion helped resolve our apparent differences? Thanks.

  5. Hello unkleE,

    Thank you for the thoughtful response but I’m afraid that we are still in disagreement but I do agree that there is a misunderstanding. Hopefully I can make what I am arguing more clear. First, I am not making a claim about inner motivations. It is an objective fact that Lenin’s and Hoxha’s actions were motivated by their political ideologies so your claim regarding inner motivations has nothing to do with what I have stated about Lenin and Hoxha. Even if my statements about Lenin and Hoxha are claims about their inner motivations I believe that we can know about those inner motivations. I also don’t really see any distinction between motivations being inner motivations and motivations being outer motivations. It seems that motivations always come from within even if anything outward effects such motivations. You state that we cannot know peoples motivations even if they were to tell us themselves but if we cannot know someone’s motivations even if they tell us themselves then why would you even reference Lenin’s letter in your response let alone make a claim that atheism was a possible motivation for Lenin? At best you could only claim ignorance to the possibility of Lenin being motivated by his atheism to commit violence if you claim that you cannot know about someone’s motivations even if he were to tell us or if he wrote about his motivations and beliefs (which he did). Any defense of the claim that atheism possibly motivates violence coupled with evidence given to support that claim (such as your references to Lenin’s letter and Hoxha) seem to be inconsistent with the claim that we cannot know what someone’s motivations are. For all you know Lenin’s endorsement of violence could have been secretly motivated by his hidden theism regardless of his own testimony and that claim would be just a credible as the claim that atheism possibly motivated Lenin’s promotion of violence if we cannot know someone’s motivations despite their own testimony. However, we have good grounds to reject the former claim regarding Lenin’s motivations precisely because of his own testimony and writings. We even have good grounds for calling the former claim absurd due to his own testimony. There is plenty of evidence of what Lenin believed and to state that we cannot know what motivated him to promote violence seems to me to be a gross negligence of the evidence we do have regarding Lenin. The same goes for Hoxha. These two men clearly believed that it was the state and the unity of the state that was most important. It is also clear that these men believed that religion caused too much division within the populace of the state and it is clear that these two men saw violence as a justified means for the ends of the state. In other words, we can know the motivations of people given evidence especially when such evidence is testimony from the very people in question and the evidence suggests that the two men you referenced in your reply were not motivated by atheism but by their political leanings. One could say that Lenin and Hoxha believed that atheism permitted violence but that is a different belief than not believing a God exists. Even if atheism was a motivation for these men you would have to present evidence and argument for that claim otherwise there is no reason to consider that possibility. Possibility does not equal plausibility.

    I also believe that the claim that atheism could be a motivating factor for violence is incoherent. A good way of illustrating this point is to demonstrate that believing in God is not a rational motivation to commit violence. For example, a Muslim (or even a Christian suicide bomber) doesn’t kill his or her self and others because they believe in God. They do so because they believe that God permits or wants them to harm those who don’t believe in God. A theist suicide bomber could be motivated by the belief that God will grant them a seat in heaven or some similar reward from God but it is not their belief in God that motivates such behavior. Believing in God does not entail violent behavior. One would have to believe that belief in God permits violence but that is a long shot from simply having a belief that God exists. Belief in God and believing that violence is somehow warranted because of that belief are two separate beliefs. The former makes no claim about violence nor entails violence and the latter entails violence necessarily. Just replace belief in God, theist, Christian, and Muslim with atheism and one would arrive at the same conclusion.

    I would also like to say that I am not blaming ideologies but giving evidence that Lenin and Hoxha were in fact greatly motivated by their political ideologies. You were the first to argue for the possibility that atheism motivates violence by referencing Lenin and Hoxha. That is why I presented the arguments that I did. I have argued that your arguments regarding Lenin, Hoxha, and atheism are false because (1) atheism does not entail violence, (2) the possibility of atheism being a motivating factor for violence is incoherent even if someone claimed atheism influenced them to be violent, and (3) Lenin and Hoxha’s political ideologies do entail violence.

    To be clear, I am not arguing against the majority of your blog post. I am only arguing against the quotation in my initial comment and some arguments made in your replies. That’s all. If we happen to not to see eye to eye on a few matters from here on then that’s fine with me. This has been a friendly back and forth that I have enjoyed and wish to continue.

  6. Hello again Terrell, and thanks for your reply. In having discussion such as this, I try not just to reply to the other person but also to understand exactly what the points of disagreement are and their cause – could it be different definitions or assumptions, or different facts, or totally different interpretations of the facts, etc?

    In this case I still think we are not all that far apart, so let me test that.

    1. I think we both agree that persons self identifying as christians and as atheists have been parts of governments that have started wars and committed mass murder.

    2. But we both also agree that we can’t necessarily make a connection between belief or disbelief in God and those terrible actions. As you say, belief and disbelief in God don’t, in themselves, entail killing people. I further say that people’s motives can be a complex mixture of many ideas, and we can only know what they say, not all they think and feel. (This is all I’m saying about not knowing inner motivation – what people say will almost always be an incomplete expression of their thought and feelings, and they may lie.)

    3. Where we seem to disagree is here …. You seem to assume that there is no connection between a person’s belief or disbelief in God and their decision to start a war, and you state strongly that Lenin and Hoxha (as examples) were motivated by their “political ideologies” and that: “These two men clearly believed that it was the state and the unity of the state that was most important.” and that “the possibility of atheism being a motivating factor for violence is incoherent even if someone claimed atheism influenced them to be violent” You say the same can be applied to religion.

    Now I find this a refreshing viewpoint. My original post was about people claiming religion causes war, and you disagree with that. So you can say, and I can see, that you agree with much of my post.

    But I think your viewpoint is too theoretical and over-simplifies the situation for both christians and atheists. I think this may be the core of our remaining difference, and I want to present a differing view.

    Human motives and causes are a complex mingling of many influences. People don’t always respond consistently. (For example, Jesus taught non-violence yet many christians ignore that.) So an influence doesn’t have to be totally logical and necessary for it to have an effect.

    It is also clear that these men believed that religion caused too much division within the populace of the state and it is clear that these two men saw violence as a justified means for the ends of the state. So when the studies I referenced discuss causes of wars, they consider a range of possible causes, with criteria to determine whether religion (or anti-religion) was a significant or predominant cause. That seems reasonable to me.

    So the 2003 invasion of Iraq was judged to be a religious war because of the rhetoric used by George W Bush. His christian belief apparently motivated him to oppose Islamic terrorism and allowed him to justify his actions. Patriotism was also a significant factor, but christian belief was part of his patriotism.

    I suggest it is very similar with Lenin and Hoxha. Their atheism was a motivation (it seems you agree here: “these men believed that religion caused too much division within the populace of the state and it is clear that these two men saw violence as a justified means for the ends of the state”) and allowed them to justify their actions (again you seem to agree: “One could say that Lenin and Hoxha believed that atheism permitted violence”). On the same grounds that Bush’s rhetoric led to the assessment that his war was religiously motivated, Lenin & Hoxha’s atrocities can be assessed as being atheistically motivated to some degree.

    So I think that is the extent of our disagreement. We both agree that religion and atheism should be judged equally. For you, that means neither can be blamed for atrocities. For me, each shares some degree of blame in some cases. And the data suggests the atrocities associated with 20th century atheistic states are greater in numbers of deaths than those of christian states through history.

    Do you think that is a fair statement of where we both stand? Thanks.

  7. Hello unklE,

    Again, thank you for a thoughtful response. I do agree with much in your blog post but I still think that atheism being a motivating factor to a person’s violent behavior is an incoherent assertion. A person believing in God(s) (theism) and a person not believing in God(s) (atheism) are two different positions on the existence of God(s). These two positions do not inform one of anything else the other believes (theism doesn’t even inform one about how many Gods another believes in). Theism is not the same as religion simply because a person can be a theist but that in no way informs one of his religion or religious beliefs if the theist in question even subscribes to a religion. For instance, a theist could be an evidentialist or subscribe to reformed epistemology (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/religion-epistemology/#RefEpi). A theist could be a Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Pagan, or subscribe to another theistic position not mentioned here. The same goes for atheism. One could be an atheist but this in no way informs you about that person’s beliefs including his belief regarding religion. I could be a liberal, a republican, a metaphysical naturalist, I could believe in the supernatural yet believe that no God exists, I could want religion eradicated, I could think religion is useful, I could subscribe to a particular religion, or I could subscribe to something entirely foreign to any of the positions I mentioned. Theism and atheism alone do not entail, permit, require, or endorse violence. The two make no mention about violence whatsoever so violence does not even follow from atheism or theism. Not even in principle. It requires beliefs regarding ethics, politics, society, metaphysics, and plenty of others things that could not all be listed here to possibly get someone to kill or even think atheism permits violence though everything I mentioned is not needed all at once. In other words, atheism and theism are just two beliefs or positions about the existence of god that are a small part of a body or web of beliefs that people have. Atheism being a motivating factor for violence is not even plausible simply because atheism in my view is the affirmation that God does not exist or belief that God doesn’t exist which says nothing about violent acts. The two positions don’t even say anything about the existence of violence for that matter. Affirming atheism cannot motivate someone to kill because it is not a claim about killing. It takes the belief that violence is somehow justified to get someone to kill which is separate from atheism and theism. Hoxha and Lenin believing that religion was divisive and believing that the use of violence against religion is justified are not the same as believing there is no God but they are reasons that could motivate someone to be violent against those who are religious. Furthermore, believing that atheism permits violence is also different from believing there is no God. The former could easily motivate one to kill (a belief about atheism) but the latter is one position on the existence of God (atheism) which in no way says anything about killing. In other words, a certain belief about atheism could motivate someone to be violent but the belief that god does not exist (atheism) cannot. A belief about something is not the same as the thing itself. For instance, a belief about God is not the same as believing in God (I feel you would very much agree with this statement). This is why I made a distinction between a belief about something (a belief that atheism permits violence) and the thing itself (atheism).

    Let’s say that Lenin says that atheism did motivate him to promote or commit violence. That would only beg the question of why atheism motivated him to promote violence if atheism is only the belief that there is no god or the belief that god doesn’t exist which in turn leads to other reasons why Lenin thought violence was viable. In fact, anyone saying that atheism is a motivating factor to why some have committed violence will always beg the question of why atheism has or could motivate violent behavior which leads to other reasons why the person in question is violent or possibly could be violent.

    Religion (not theism) is much different. I stated that religion does not entail violence but I feel that doesn’t say all of what I think of religion. Religion is more than just negating or affirming the existence of God. Religion entails beliefs regarding metaphysics, ethics, politics, society, and numerous other categories (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/philosophy-religion/). Some of these beliefs do entail violence. Atheism and theism do not which I hope you understand from what I have been saying so far. Any particular religion contains a body or web of beliefs. This is the fundamental difference between atheism and religion which is why atheism is very different from religion. For example, atheism (the belief that a god does not exists) or theism (the belief that a god does exists) could be a part of the body of beliefs that make up a religion but religion can’t be a part of atheism in the sense that a body of beliefs cannot make up a single belief or position (atheism in this case). That would be like saying a single basketball team makes up all basketball teams. I also stated that there is a logical gap between religion and violence but that gap can easily be filled by a belief that violence is justified which could be a belief that is a part of some particular religion. In the case of George Bush, his particular brand of Christianity permitted violence. It wasn’t his belief in God (his theism) that was a part of what made him think unleashing war on a country was justified. That would just beg the question of why his belief in God was a motivating factor that made him think war was justified. However, as you have stated, it seems to be his religion that is made up of a body of beliefs that includes his Christian belief to oppose Islamic terrorism that partly motivated his actions which he felt were justified. To be fair, I believe there were other reasons why we invaded Iraq that have little to nothing to do with patriotism and religion so I’m skeptical that it was solely because of those two aspects regarding Bush that caused the invasion but that is a conversation for another time. Given what I have said about atheism and religion I feel it is false that Lenin and Hoxha’s atrocities can be assessed as being motivated by atheism because atheism is not like religion. Their regimes were atheistic but it was not atheism that motivated such atrocities. At most, one could say that atheism was a minor means to an end for Lenin and Hoxha but the means are not what motivate Lenin and Hoxha. It is the end that is the motivated them. To say that atheism was a motivating factor for Lenin and Hoxha is to misunderstand what atheism means in my opinion. I also disagree that I am being too theoretical or too simplistic. Scholars have been talking about what I have been talking about for years.

    http://www.iep.utm.edu/atheism/#H1

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atheism-agnosticism/#1

    I also want to address some of your statements in number 2. I still disagree that we cannot know about inner motivations. Inner motivations (I still don’t see how the use of the term inner changes anything about motivations being that motivations come from within so I will not use the term inner in our conversation) are our thoughts and the majority of people tend to be truthful about their thoughts whether written or spoken so people lying is no reason to not believe what people say in general especially if they are more or less consistent. People’s motivations can be a mixture of many ideas but that doesn’t mean that what they say tells us nothing about those motivations simply because we don’t have a complete expression of their thoughts and feelings especially when there is such a vast body of evidence in regards to the people in question (Hoxha and Lenin). The two have political ideologies named after them after all (Hoxhaism and Marxism-Leninism) and the two were fairly consistent when it comes to their actions lining up with what they believed about the state or at least what they said themselves. I really don’t see how that isn’t a good indicator of what one is motivated by especially when it comes to Hoxha and Lenin. I’m also not claiming to know all of what someone thinks and feels. I am claiming that we can know about some of the motivations of people and that we can be justified in our claims of motivations about people despite not knowing every motivation a person has. A detective doesn’t need to know every single thought of a murderer to know why the murderer murdered someone. Knowing something doesn’t mean accounting for every single variable that has to do with the thing that someone is trying to know about. Given the evidence regarding the two in question, how could you possibly agree with me that it is clear that these men believed that religion caused too much division within the populace of the state and that it is clear that these two men saw violence as a justified means for the ends of the state yet deny that we know that these were motivations to the violence they have caused? How could you claim that it is clear that they believed these things yet claim it is not clear that these things motivated them? Complexity of the mind, people not understanding their own motivations at times, and the lack of our ability to know someone’s thoughts with 100% certainty is no reason to think that we cannot know and be justified about our claims about one’s motivations at all. Not being 100% certain doesn’t mean we don’t know something to be true.

    Hopefully I could illustrate my point about motivations and evidence in this paragraph so that you can really understand where I am coming. I feel that your argument regarding motivations brings into question your beliefs about Jesus. What we know about Lenin is far more certain and complete than what we know about Jesus simply because we actually have auditory, visual, and textual evidence about Lenin which includes what we wrote and what he said about what he thought. However, with Jesus we only have textual evidence and the textual evidence we have are text in which Jesus writes nothing himself nor is any of the text regarding Jesus contemporary to the time Jesus was living. With your line of reasoning regarding what we can know about someone’s motivations I could say the same about Jesus what you say about Lenin. Everything written about Jesus was by humans but you take issue with human reasoning and influences. You say that human motives and causes are a complex mingling of many influences. People don’t always respond consistently. You also state that people’s motives can be a complex mixture of many ideas, and we can only know what they say, not all they think and feel. What people say will almost always be an incomplete expression of their thought and feelings, and they may lie. Given your own position on what we can know about one’s motivations and given the fact that the textual evidence regarding Lenin is his very own testimony (keep in mind that Jesus never wrote anything himself) how could you say that Jesus wanted us to live a non-violent life yet say that we can’t really know that Lenin’s violent political ideology motivated him? It seems that you are denying exactly what allows one to know what we know about Jesus and his motivations when you deny that we can’t know about the motivations of Lenin given that the evidence regarding Lenin (his own writings and speeches) is better than the evidence regarding Jesus who didn’t write anything let alone there not being any video or audio recordings of what Jesus said. You seem to also state that we can’t know about a person’s motivations even when there is evidence (testimony from the very person in question) that warrants an inference about a person’s motivations but at the same time you infer that Jesus wanted us to live a non-violent life from evidence that isn’t even testimony directly from Jesus himself. Seems like an unfair assessment of the historical evidence regarding Jesus and Lenin.

    With this said, I believe that religion and atheism should be judged fairly but I do not think they hold equal positions when they are being judged. I do believe that religion shares a certain degree of blame for a few atrocities in the past and in the present. I do not believe atheism or theism hold any blame for atrocities. A regime being atheistic does not entail that it is atheism that motivates that regime simply because such an assertion would beg the question of how not believing in God could motivate someone to commit any act which leads to other reasons besides atheism as the motivator.

  8. Hi Terrell, that was a long response – 4 times the size of my post! I have gone through it all and think you have made 6 main points.

    1. Atheism & theism define attitude to God and not attitude to violence.

    I agree this is true in theory. But people don’t always follow theory. Some people may believe that atheism or theism leads to certain behaviours that aren’t entailed in the actual definitions. So for them it is a contributing factor.

    For example, a few years back an atheist website published some material urging atheists to burn down churches (I don’t know how serious or joking they were). As a result, some atheists in Scandinavia did just that. Were those actions caused, even partially, by their atheism? Clearly they were. But clearly many other atheists would disapprove of those actions.

    I’m sure there are theistic equivalents (e.g. the crusades or jihad), though the motivation might be more religion than theism, and many theists would disagree with those actions. I don’t think unravelling all this is easy.

    2. Religion is different to theism in that it does entail other things than simple belief.

    I think this depends on definition. Definitions of religion don’t entail much beyond belief in God and following a pattern of worship. So I don’t think the definition entails much more than atheism or theism. But again, it is the way people think about it that matters, and clearly some people think religion, atheism or theism might lead them or others to certain behaviours regarding violence.

    3. It was not atheism that motivated Lenin & Hoxha to violence.

    I don’t think you can say this. It was a factor in their thinking, but probably not the main one. But who knows? Communists were not well known for their truthfulness, as Orwell’s novel 1984 pointed out.

    4. We can know enough about motivations from what people say (“ people tend to be truthful about their thoughts”).

    Generally that is true, but it is surely less true when dealing with people with strong motivations that are disadvantageous to other people. Think the smoking lobby, or the anti climate change lobby, or people on trial in the criminal court – or people justifying war. That was the only reason I mentioned it – because I think justifying war may be one of the times when people can be least trusted to be truthful.

    5. Lenin vs Jesus.

    I agree that we know more about what Lenin did and said than we know about Jesus. But that isn’t the question. The question is when can we trust someone. And for the reasons I’ve given, I’m not sure I would trust Lenin very much at all, whereas I feel there is no motivation for Jesus or the gospel writers to lie.

    6. You believe that religion and atheism should be judged fairly

    I agree here, and therefore we are fundamentally in agreement. I don’t think religion or irreligion is the main cause of most violence, but rather greed, power, hatred, anger, etc. I just think (as you do) that the same standard should be applied to both. If christianity or religion caused war, or was even a factor, then so did atheism cause violence or was a factor.

    Where you and I disagree is that you apply a strict definition of cause and (a)theism, whereas I take a more pragmatic view. Do you feel OK about this summary?

  9. Hello unkleE,

    I would just have to disagree with you. I didn’t realize my post was longer than your initial post despite feeling that I have nearly said all I feel I had to say. Going any further in this conversation would simply be me being more redundant than I already am. I enjoyed this back and forth. I enjoy your blog and I feel that your very even handed with your arguments. I will definitely be a regular reader of yours as I feel you have noticed after your latest post regarding the fine-tuning argument. Thank you for responding and taking the time to engage with me. It’s been a pleasure.

  10. Hi Terrell, thanks for your generally positive comments. It isn’t often we get such comments from people who disagree with us, so I appreciate them. (I may even quote you on my home page, if you didn’t mind.)

    I think you are right, there is only so far it is worth going in any conversation. But I have enjoyed discussing with you, and you are certainly welcome to keep visiting and keep commenting.

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