Sunday, July 05, 2009

Religion and violence

I looked at some dialogue I had in March of 2008 about Dawkins and his child abuse claims, and I claimed at that time that those claims were irresponsible and a potential threat to the separation of church and state. Dawkins said he thought that teaching a child the doctrine of everlasting punishment was worse abuse than sexually abusing the child. We use force to prevent child sexual abuse, so even if Dawkins doesn't advocate the forcible removal of children from religious parents, the road in that direction is already marked out in what he says.

There is an intellectual path that leads from religious belief to religious persecution. There is an intellectual path that leads from atheism to religious persecution. The child abuse talk on the part of Dawkins takes us part of the way.

One step in the direction of persecution, either religious or anti-religious, involves something that I think is true, namely, that ideas have consequences and they do matter. We can remove the temptation to persecute on behalf of our beliefs by adopting a "Can't we all just get along" kind of intellectual relativism, but the price is, in my estimation, just too steep.

Christians have by and large rejected the idea that they ought to use political power to inculcate their beliefs, so the "religion leads to violence" concept is not borne out by at least the last couple hundred years of history. That is because Christians have decided that the right to impose their sectarian beliefs on others isn't worth risking the possibility of being persecuted for one's own beliefs.

The fact that Billy Graham might think it likely that Richard Dawkins will suffer in hell forever for his atheism, while Dawkins doesn't think that Graham will roast for his religious faith doesn't mean that Graham is a better candidate to persecute than Dawkins is.

Religion doesn't lead to violence. A willingness to use the powers of the state to enforce religious or non-religious conformity is what leads to violence. Political power carries with it temptations. Christians have a track record in dealing with those temptations. It has some bad patches in it, but by and large Christians aren't going down that road. Do atheists have a track record? No, unless the Communists count. If they do, the record is bad, if they don't, then atheists are untested when it comes to not persecuting when possessing sufficient political power to do so.

Would you take The Ring if you thought you could make things so much better by so doing?


Gregory said...

Since we're on this subject, I wanted to say something about the Crusades.

The Crusades were not, as commonly supposed, a religious persecution of the Muslims....nor was it a religious persecution of the Roman/Byzantine Empire.

Instead, the Crusades were an attempt, by means of military force, to secure the cultural and spiritual dominance of the Eastern and Western sectors of the Roman/Byzantine Empire. It was not, first and foremost, a "religious" Crusade. It was a geo-political maneuver to stem the tide of the Mohammedan hordes from over-turning the Middle East, Palestine, Africa and Europe.

Now, I want to point out a very significant difference, historically speaking, between Christianity and Islam.

The spread of "Christianity" and Christian "culture" was, in terms of history, a matter of preaching and conversion. And it's power to conquer the Roman Empire, even the entire known world, resided in the truth of it's message, and not in the political power of it's devotees.

The spread of Islam, on the other hand, was a matter of sheer political force. This is a matter of historical record. And, it seems to me to be a highly anachronistic move for Westernized Muslims and academics to reinterpret Islam as a religion of "peace", when it's very name--when translated aright--means "submission". Indeed, such was the political goal of Mohammend and his immediate successors. Therefore, it would be an entirely natural interpretation of Westerners to perceive that [Islam] religious entity as, de facto, a cultural body that's willing to exercise whatever political means necessary to secure it's own ideological dominance; because, that is it's historical character. And I believe that the militant politics of Mohammed--as a means of spreading his message--were necessary, politically speaking, because his message is not true.

That, my friends, is the marked historical difference--in terms of the "Crusades"--between Christianity and Islam. It is also why I thought President Obama's recent address, delivered at the University of Egypt, was deeply mistaken.

unkle e said...

CS Lewis said that belief in God created people with greater potential to do either good or evil. That's why we see both heroic self sacrifice and service of others and terrible hatred and wars in the history of Christendom. Thankfully, the times when Christendom was the most powerful "organisation" on earth are behind us, so the motivation for good should outweigh the temptation to evil.

I would guess the same would be true to some degree for any strong belief, including atheism. The temptations to use power to force people to follow one's idea of what is good are the same, but it remains to be seen whether there is sufficient counter-balancing humanism. Some signs are not promising.

Steven Carr said...

Religion doesn't lead to child-abuse and violence.

But Christians worship a god who kills children.

I quote William Lane Craig 'God knew that if these Canaanite children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel. The killing of the Canaanite children not only served to prevent assimilation to Canaanite identity but also served as a shattering, tangible illustration of Israel’s being set exclusively apart for God.

Craig's solution is for his alleged god to have all the children killed.

Then they wouldn't be able to wreck God's plans.

Surely it really is child-abuse to teach children that God kills children who would otherwise grow up to interfere with his plans, if they were not liquidated before they were able to do that.

Ilíon said...

Christians worship a God who is Life itself; 'atheists' have a simpler faith: they worship Death.

mattghg said...

Well then, Steven. Since you think that, I suppose you're in favour of forcibly removing children from such parents?

SE said...

'atheists' have a simpler faith: they worship Death.

Atheists simply recognize the reality of death, instead of denying it exists, as Christians do.

Anonymous said...

Steven Carr's comment reveals much more about Steven than it does about the God that Christian's worship.

Why limit the case to Canaanite children, Steven? Why not blame God for the deaths of every human in history? After all, this was the judgment of the garden, wasn't it?

But the point has been made, and we are collectively in awe of Steven's moral acumen. Physical death is the worst evil. Especially the death of children. Particularly children who lived millenia ago, rather than those routinely slaughtered down the street...

Gordon Knight said...

"Atheists worship death"????
I think some people need to get out and see the world a little more.

Unfortunately there is an argument for religiously based violence based on the doctrine of eternal damnation.

(1). The suffering of souls in the hearafter is an extremely great evil, much worse (infinitely worse?) than any suffering inflicted in this life.

(2) Heretics are people who spread views that lead to more souls via suffering eternal damnation.

(3) If you can prevent an extremely great evil by means of a much less evil, you should do it.

(3)Therefore, if violence against heretics leads to fewer souls being damned, we should engage in such violence.

What is wrong with the argument? well, one can of course challenge the idea that God goes around damning people because of what they believe. That would be the sensible way out.

But other than that, what would be the problem?

One could challenge the belief that violence is the best means for saving souls. One could perhaps hold that, e.g. Killing Richard Dawkins would actually create a martyr to the atheist cause, creating more suffering in Hell, not less. But it is hardly clear that this would be true in all cases, or all cultural circumstances.

One could claim that on strictly deontological grounds violence against heresy is wrong, independently of the consequences, but for those of us who are not pacifists that sort of approach here looks more than a little ad hoc.

Gregory said...

Atheists are not besmirched by a record of "crusading", not because atheists possess a more benign character than "religious" people, but because atheism's historical unpopularity has kept it from receiving equal criticism.

But in cases where there was a political push towards atheism (i.e. the French Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution and every other communized Country), such revolutions were "ugly", if not "bloody".

In fact, all of the symptoms that allegedly plague the so-called "Christian" community, whether Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox---namely: bigotry, intolerance, meanness and hatred....which are the root causes of war and violence---are symptoms shared equally by the atheist.

However, atheism simply hasn't had the kind of widespread popularity by which war and violence, in the name of godlessness, could be as closely connected and identified with. Yet, neither is it wholly free from such accusations. I have listed some above.

History has shown us, if nothing else, that "reason" is impotent in preventing evil. In fact, "reason" has been the source of many, if not all, evils---either as a "cause" of them, or as justifications in their aftermath. Yet, the atheist speaks as though his "reason" has elevated him above the moral pitfalls of other "evil" men. That by simply "thinking", he believes that he has, somehow, risen above all the shortfalls of religious men and as to be able to contemptuously point the finger at them, through the power of his/her own humanistic holiness.

Now, suppose that atheism is true...and that there is no God or life after death. Why can't atheists simply allow other people to be happy and content with the "delusion" that God exists? Why crusade to remove the concept of God from the minds of other people when this "delusion", by their own admission, helps other people to be happy and/or content with the vicissitudes of life? Why not just let the religious people have their fantasy and get on with discovering and inventing things...or whatever naturalistic type of activity makes them happy? Why spend any time getting worked up about God when you face an eternal, unperturbed non-existence? What can any of the atheists rants really amount to, in the light of their own future nothingness, anyway?

Could it be that their own petty, idiosyncratic evangelizing of the religious community bear evidence of that very loathsome kernel of "hate" which---when fully ripened---leads to war and persecution?


Tom Gilson said...

Gordon Knight,

The problem with your argument is that you left out some significant premises, especially that for us to play God is also an extremely great evil. For us to defy God's command not to murder is an extremely great evil. There's more, but that's enough, I think, to answer your question.

Ilíon said...

Yes, poor fool (both of you), 'atheists' worship Death.

Gordon Knight said...


I don't think that works--"murder" means wrongful killing. But if the argument is correct, the killing in this case is justifed (cf. capital punishment or war death)

true, there are Christian ethicists who hold that all killing is wrong,and for them the argument would not work independently of views re: the fate of eternal souls.

Augustine of course used arguments such as this to defend torture, and the perscution of heretics has, i think, been defended more or less on this basis throughout the ages (whatever the real socio-political motivation may have been).

here is another way to see it. Suppose Jones is throwing an innocent baby into a burning house. I can stop jones, but only by means of shooting him with a gun. Am i "playing God" by killing jones?

Just fill in "heretic" for jones and let the people deceived by false teaching stand in for the baby.

Steven Carr said...

But no god has ever given any commandments not to murder.

Those commandments were all written by people.

Christians will tell you though that if you break any of 'Gods' commandments, that will always lead to a greater good.

Yheir alleged god never allows any evil that does not lead to a greater good.

So kill and torture people to your heart's content, happy in the knowledge that Alvin Plantinga will tell you that all that evil leads to a greater good.

Why does God allow abortion to happen?

Because it leads to a greater good.

mattghg said...


(1) If violence were the best method for ensuring that people enter and remain in a saving relationship with Jesus, Jesus himself would have used violence.
(2) Jesus didn't use violence.
(3) Therefore, violence is not the best method for ensuring that people enter and remain in a saving relationship with Jesus.

I actually question your premise (2), since ISTM that from Matthew 24:24 we can conclude that it's not possible to deceive the elect.

mattghg said...

Don't you feel like answering my question, Steven?

The Family said...

== quote gk ==

One could challenge the belief that violence is the best means for saving souls. One could perhaps hold that, e.g. Killing Richard Dawkins would actually create a martyr to the atheist cause, creating more suffering in Hell, not less. But it is hardly clear that this would be true in all cases, or all cultural circumstances.

One could claim that on strictly deontological grounds violence against heresy is wrong

== end quote ==
== quoting tg ==

The problem with your argument is that you left out some significant premises, especially that for us to play God is also an extremely great evil. For us to defy God's command not to murder is an extremely great evil.
== end quote ==

It's not clear what the net long term consequences of the use of violence against those who are trying to stop people from believing properly are, but it _is_ clear that harming others without clear evidence it will save more than not save others IS wrong.

Thus the net result is that such violent intervention is not justified.

Augustine did not have a historical record to dissuade him from his views. He turned out to be empirically wrong on this. We should now know better.

Gordon Knight said...

So, on your view, if it turns out that torturing a popular atheist would lead to more people becoming true Christians, it would be justified?

Is it really just an empirical matter. I would have thought the Augustinian view is simply monstrous on its face.

The Family said...

Yes, exactly. Torture is monstrous on its face. There are theoretical scenarios where it could be justified (the Bush administration claimed some) but my point is that in thew long run, history has told us that these are not valid exceptions. So violence in the name of preserving true belief remains wrong by default.

I am here saying that though I agree with a theoretical exception for torture I deny that those circumstances have been met in Western history :).

Ilíon said...

Augustine *defends* torture? I rather doubt that that is actually the case.

I suspect it's more that he realizes that reality isn't so simplistic as certain persons -- amusingly enough, these persons tend to be the sort who go on about how reality isn't black-and-white -- like to imagine it is. When it's convenient for them to do so, of course.

Patrick said...

>> Dawkins said he thought that teaching a child the doctrine of everlasting punishment was worse abuse than sexually abusing the child.

I almost agree - I do agree that it's *abusive* to teach children the idea of eternal hell. Good for Dawkins for speaking up about it.

Gordon Knight said...

I think it is only by means of extreme cognitive dissonance that one can hold together the idea of a loving God and that of eternal torment. It must have driven many a devout soul insane.

so one of my kids has definite naturalistic/atheistic tendencies. Supposed i thougth that if he were to die a non-christian he would go to hell. What sort of abuse would i NOT engage in if I thought it would save him from that fate?

If we take the idea of Hell seriously (as traditionally undestood), not only do we engage in incoherent theology, we give ourselves licence to perform the most heinous of actions which we can defend,like communists of old, as necessary for the greater good.

Aaron said...


I can very much sympathize with your views on the doctrine of hell. As you said, it is difficult for me to believe in both an all-loving God, and eternal torment. To me, they represent opposite ends of a spectrum: one is the most beautiful thing I can imagine, the other the most horrible. I feel like I could believe in one or the other, but as I said, it's very hard for me to believe in both.

Sometimes I read something from a Christian that I agree with regarding hell, such as in the book "Why There Almost Certainly is a God" by Keith Ward:

"I cannot think that a God of supreme love would condemn anyone just for honestly not thinking that God exists. So, however God comes to be known to atheists, it will be in love and compassion, not in some paroxysm of vindictive glee, as if to say, 'There, I told you so; you should have believed, shouldn't you? But now it's too late. Hee hee.' Even if there are people who think that is what God is like, that cannot be what a God of supreme goodness is actually like. That is why believers in God should regard honest atheists with regret that atheists have no experience of such unconditional love, but still with due respect for whatever honesty and concern for truth and goodness they have, and with hope that such concern will lead them at last to acknowledge God."

To me the most important word Ward uses is in the first sentence, "honestly." I just don't see how any God who is supremely good and loving could blame someone for having *honest* doubts. If someone becomes an atheist because of some kind of terrible tragedy, like the death of a loved one... I don't think that their reasoning for being an atheist would be sound, but I can certainly *understand* how such a person could be an atheist, or anyone who has had first-hand experience of tragedy. For me, to blame someone for having *honest* doubts about the existence of God, especially in the face of tragedy, would be like blaming grass for being green.

If God does exist, I truly hope that it is the God that Ward describes.

Gordon Knight said...


I agree completely and should read more Keith Ward. He seems like one sharp cookie.

As an epistemic matter, our predicament strikes me as ambiguous-- I see rational, honest people judging that theism is true, and similiarly rational, honest people judging atheism is true. Life is so WEIRD, and there is so much mystery, its bizzare to suppose that some answer (e.g."Christian theism") should jump out to everyone as the obvious truth. To suppose otherwize is to engage in the same sort of hubris that facile naturalists engage in (how anyone can take naturalism seriously as an alternative to theism is beyond me.. but that is probably MY hubris)

Robin Edgar said...

One need only read the Bible, to say nothing of some other religious scriptures, to see that religion has led quite directly to various forms of violence in the past.

Communists do count AFAIAC and their willingness to use the powers of the state to enforce non-religious conformity has led to some quite egregious violence in the 20th century and may well do so again in the 21st century. Come to think of it an example of Communist vs. religious or vice versa violence is occurring in China at this minute. . .

:Christians have a track record in dealing with those temptations. It has some bad patches in it, but by and large Christians aren't going down that road.

The key word here being "aren't". Christians most certainly have gone down that road in the past in horrific ways and may well do so again in the future. . . In fact, the current war in Iraq can be seen as something of a modern "crusade" and not just because U.S. President George W. Bush rather foolishly used that word to describe the war in Iraq.

Aaron said...

Hi Gordon,

You wrote:

"As an epistemic matter, our predicament strikes me as ambiguous-- I see rational, honest people judging that theism is true, and similiarly rational, honest people judging atheism is true."

I completely know what you mean, and I can assure you that I share your frustration! It's almost enough to make me throw up my hands and give up. I feel like, I'm just a philosophy undergrad, how the hell am I supposed to come up with anything resembling a satisfying answer when there are so many people who are a hell of a lot smarter than I am who have polar opposite views? Like I said, it's just frustrating.

One thing I'd like to say though, just because someone is a smart, rational person doesn't necessarily mean that all of his beliefs and/or actions are based on reason and rationality. Reason is not always the trump card. For example, I remember one of my intro philosophy profs telling us that he *knows* that it is clearly in his best interest to try to eat healthier and exercise... his reason brought him to that conclusion... and yet very often he will indulge in a couple quarter pounders and lie on the couch for an evening when he should instead be eating salads and exercising. I think it's very telling when the thought of a mere cheeseburger ends up trumping reason. Even rational people often find it difficult to "follow the evidence where it leads."

This reminds me of a great quote a read a long time ago, though I can't recall who said it. Something to the effect of,

"What concerns me is not *what* someone believes, but *why* they believe something."

Also, concerning what you said about our predicament as an epistemic matter, I remember reading a quote from T.S. Eliot where he said that Christianity seemed to him to be the least false of the options available to him. For me I think that might be the best approach to take - to look for the view that seems to be the "least false."

Back to Keith Ward, and regarding the subject of this post (apologies Victor if I've been a bit off topic), I highly recommend his book "Is Religion Dangerous?" I found it to be a very fair and balanced treatment, which is very representative of his writing. He reminds me of John Polkinghorne in this way.

Victor Reppert said...

I never said that religion has never provided a pretext for violence. Of course it has. What I suggests is that human nature has enough proclivity to violence that it would likely occur with or without a religous pretext.

The opposition to religion can equally provide a pretext for violence. We need only take the words of Dawkins, stretch his arguments a tad in what seems to me to be perfectly logical ways, and thereby justify a using force to suppress religion and advance human enlightenment.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Victor.

In fact, the widespread acceptance of Russian Orthodoxy qua political opposition to Marxism, is what led Stalin to purge Russia of it's presence via the Gulags and numerous storm-troop massacres.

Solzhenitzin's harrowing account of a society without God, documented in the "Gulag Archipelago", stands as a sobering to the naive humanist who has faith in the beneficence of an atheist society and world.

John Lennon's butter-scotch sentiments of "Imagine There's No Heaven", have been more than was the actual, lived experience of the Russian people for 70+ years. And it wasn't the narcissistic, hippy vision of Lennon; but rather the brutal, soul quenching nightmare of Lenin.

The Family said...

==quote ==

Augustine *defends* torture? I rather doubt that that is actually the case.

== end quote ==

Hmm.. I. is right on this it seems.

It looks, actually, as if Augustine discouraged torture for the most part, though he does seem to implictly accept it as common practice by the secular authories of the day:

Ilíon said...

GK asserts that Augustine *defends* torture. But then, that the sort of assertion which GK *would* make.

This post underwritten by "rednedic."

Edward T. Babinski said...

Gregory says the Crusades had little to do with religious differences, or religious enthusiasm as if one could separate religion from politics easily in that day and age, or even during the wars of religion in Europe, say, the Thirty Years War.

Political and religious and philosophical ideologies overlap, always have. That includes the religious-like Armageddon end times, final battle, proclamations of a Hitler and his millennial dreams, as well as the dreams of a "worker's paradise" produced by Marxist communism.

On the other hand, I also firmly recognize that Christianity, like atheism, need not be joined to any one political point of view. There are Christians and atheists who support liberal causes, just as there have been and are Christians and atheists who believe their beliefs and theirs alone should dominate the world by whatever means possible.

There are laughing Christians like G.K. Chesterton who wrote to his friend, the atheist Wells, that he expected him to be in heaven, while there have also been Christian and atheist persecutors, torturers, book banners.

Humanity always seems to evolve new interpretations, new combinations, that's Darwinism for you.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Gregory, what do you thing helped MAKE the French Revolution and the communist revolution "ugly?"

How about centuries of regal rulers aligned with priests, keeping people ignorant and poor? And also the disillusion toward religion generated by Christianized nations attacking each other for centuries?

Hell, Europe's most amazing span of peace has been the years since the end of World War 2. Over 70 years of relative peace, peace like Europe's probably never seen before.

The French Revolution turned damned bloody partly because the king kept dissolving people's congresses and suppressing rights, and the disgruntled poor outnumbered the wealthy.

The Russian revolution took place during the final year of World War 1, after Christian nations had employed all the latest technologies to conquer and/or destroy each other. They have peace for one night, on Christmas Eve, and then next day went back to throwing all the latest death-dealing technology at each other, regardless of people on both sides being Christians, believing the Trinity, praying for peace and what not.

The Russian Czar instituted the secret police and Gulags before the communists did, and was revered as semi-divine, upheld in his position as holy leader of Russia by the priests. The people were left in their ignorance and veneration, no modern public education for them like the people in Europe. Talk about resentment, when the Czar built a room lined in gold and amused themselves with Fabrege eggs. The Czar might have learned something from Louis the XIV before the revolution struck him.

The Chinese communist revolution took place during the end of World War 2. Japan had raped China, conquering and killing Chinese. And the Western powers had been slowly raping China for a few centuries before that (read about the Opium War in which Great Britain forced the Chinese to continue producing and trading in opium after their rulers tried to STOP such a trade with Britain).

In both the Russian and Communist revolution the countries were filled with peasants mainly.

And consider that even in World War 2, Hitler was voted into office by Christians. He only attained the winning vote count because of people outside the big cities voting more heavily for the Nazi party. In the city votes Hitler was even with the other candidates. So a lot of Christians voted Hitler into power, not corrupt city folk. Hitler just had to convince them he felt he was being led by God, "Gott Mit Us" was the Nazi motto, not some blooming communistic atheist. And Hitler spoke in eschatological terms about the coming battle with atheism, defeating communism in a final battle, gaining the land to the east to expand German blood and culture. Hitler said little about evolution, said in some places that he didn't believe humans evolved from apes, but he did speak about struggle a lot. And he scapegoated the Jews, the same group whom CHRISTIANS had been scapegoating for centuries. Did Darwin scapegoat the Jews? No way.

Who were the other aggressors in World War 2? Mussolini, not an atheist, a Catholic. And Hirohito, a Shintoist, and divine imperial leader of Japan, a god-king.

And you wonder how communism took root.

Gregory said...

E. Babinski:

I already made mention of the distinction between politics, on the one hand, and the heart of historic Christian spirituality. The message of Christianity is not a political message, but a spiritual message. And the factuality of the events surrounding the central personality of the Christian faith--namely Jesus Christ--not only helped it to flourish in an extraordinarily hostile environment, but helped win over the Roman Empire. This was not accomplished by forced political exiles, torture/prison camps or military crusades. Instead, the truth of Christianity, which was the main plea and appeal of it's advocates, is what enabled Christianity to win over so many people, during it's span of 21 centuries. The Christian faith, once for all delivered (Jude 3), has been "bloody" because Christ and his followers--as a testimony to the truth of the Faith--laid down their own lives. Martyrdom, as the heart of the Christian faith (i.e. Matt. 16:24, 27:26-54; compare with Matt. 20:20-28; Acts 7:54-60; Gal. 2:20; Rev. 6:9-11) is what separates Christianity from all other faiths. And it's message is not the idea that men should lay down their lives for a good cause; but, rather, that God has laid down His life for men.

This is a much different picture of life's purpose than humanism's optimistic "utopia", which aims at the fulfillment and satisfaction of the autonomous Self. Hence it's [humanism] variegated scientific, political and economic proposals for solving all of life's ills. But, the results of this vision for human life---irrespective of the belief systems it's [humanism] devotees claim to adhere to (i.e. whether they affirm atheism, Hinduism or Christianity)---is inevitable hatred, war and bloodshed. That is the history and hallmark of human revolution, from Islam to Tiananmen Square.

Make no mistake about this: Christianity teaches self-denial, while humanism teaches self-fulfillment and pleasure matter which humanist "means" are employed in securing their own particular "enlightened self-interest".

So, Mr. Babinski, your complaints are not really leveled against Christianity at all, as you have been claiming. Your complaints are actually against the humanism that you wish to defend. Unless, and until, you come to grips with that fact, then you will continue to fail meriting the American Indian title of "The Great Owl Spirit: He Who Nests With Wisdom".