07 November, 2005

An inconvenience of atheism

Bede's Journal has an interesting reflection on how atheists deal with the murderous history of atheism in the 20th century: they try to argue that communism and nazism weren't atheistic philosophies after all, but religions.

I'll leave that argument to James, who handles it rather well. I first encountered the line that "religion isn't so great because of all the people killed in religious wars" argument some time ago; it was only in the last decade, however, that I began to hear that religon was right-out evil on this score. Note the difference; it's one thing to say that religious people aren't so good, so why should I be religious? and another entirely to argue that religion is inimical to humanity and should therefore be exterminated.

In general, anti-religious folk content themselves with vague hand-waving and references to the Crusades and the Reformation's Wars of Religion, but one fellow claimed in an online forum that 90% of all wars were due to religion.

Well! I proceeded to list about twenty major non-religious wars of the 19th and 20th century, and challenged him to produce a similar list of religious wars during that period. Here we go:

  1. The Seven Years' War (Britain & France)
  2. The American Revolution
  3. The French Revolution
  4. The Napoleonic Wars (France & Europe)
  5. The Revolutions in the Americas
  6. The Wars to create and preserve the British Empire (Boer War, Irish Revolution, and the Great Game with Russia would all be examples)
  7. The American Civil War
  8. The Crimean War
  9. The Spanish-American War
  10. The Great War, The War to End All Wars, or World War I (whatever you want to call it)
  11. The Italian invasion of Ethiopia
  12. The Spanish Civil War
  13. Stalin's invasions of Finland, the Baltic states, and Poland
  14. World War II
  15. The Chinese Revolution
  16. The Cold War, including but not limited to the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the American intervention in Grenada, and the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan
  17. The Cultural Revolution in China (If you don't want to call this a war I'll concede it)
  18. Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge Revolution
  19. The Falklands War
  20. The Persian Gulf War between Iran & Iraq
  21. The Persian Gulf War between the United Nations and Iraq
  22. The Breakup of Yugoslavia (beginning with Slovenia)
He never replied; in fact, no one ever took up the challenge. I was rather disappointed; you'll notice that in my generosity I combined several wars as one (Afghanistan and Vietnam into the Cold War, for example). I invited them to go so far as to do group work and to take some time for serious research, since I named all these wars "off the cuff." No one ever replied.

Some years have passed, so one could also add
  1. The genocide in Rwanda
  2. The American Afghan campaign
  3. The Persian Gulf War between the United States, its allies, and Iraq
At this point, the natural question is, can anyone produce 225 wars caused by religion, during the same time period, that even approaches this scale of carnage? One would need 225 to justify that figure of 90%. Note that I'm not even counting bodies; I'm only counting conflicts. If we were counting bodies, I think the case for atheism would be rather hopeless.

There are a number of people, myself included, who believe that the nationalism and secularism that followed the so-called "Enlightenment" has removed one of the most important brakes on human barbarity, and I am hardly ignorant of how common war was during middle ages. It should be noted, however, that the vast majority of wars during the Middle Ages had nothing to do with religion, so I think atheists would have trouble even if I admitted any time period, as opposed to limiting the game to the last 250 years. Moreover, when many "civilized" states (i.e., the Italian princedoms) went to war during the late Middle Ages, it was nothing that a sane man would ever consider to be more than a game. Generally, condottieri tried to outmaneuver each other's armies. When one of them saw that he had lost any hope of strategic advantage, he simply surrendered rather than expose his soldiers to butchery. It was quite a shock to the Italians when the French and Germans invaded northern Italy and actually started massacring soldiers. How uncivilized! As Lord Norwich explains in his History of Venice, the Italians had simply "forgotten how to fight." Wikipedia puts it this way: they "began fighting each other in grandiose but often pointless and nearly bloodless 'battles.'"

In any case, if anyone should find a list of wars that can be seriously attributed to religion, and if it comes anywhere close to 200, please let me know. I'll be happy to do some research and dig up several thousand more non-religious wars.

12 comments:

zsolt said...

You are right, these wars were fought not for explicitly religious reasons, but (at least in the case of the European and the American wars) the people who fought them were religious. So, what is religion good for, if it's unable to stop the war? Can you point out some wars that didn't happen because of the existence of religion? So, if it's the same number of wars with and without religion, then why have religion, only so that some people don't die uneasy, believing, that they deserve Heaven, because they've done good in their lives?

Maybe people would treasure life more if they didn't believe in an afterlife. Maybe not. :))

jack perry said...

Can you point out some wars that didn't happen because of the existence of religion?

That's rather self-contradictory, isn't it? A war that didn't happen because of the existence of religion? :-) If it didn't happen, I couldn't very well point to it.

I hope you will accept the following examples in place of any such war. Religious people did often intervene to settle things to prevent dispute. One example that I remember off the top of my head was the division of the New World between Spain and Portugal. That certainly avoided a war, but it gets used AGAINST the Catholic Church as an example of arrogance. ("Who were they to think they owned the world and could divide it between the two" etc. etc.) There are certainly many other examples that I could dig up if I did some research.

In addition, I might point to numerous examples of when the Catholic Church (and other churches, I'm sure) strove to avoid war and/or end it, but was ignored. The first world war comes to mind, as does the most recent war in the Persian Gulf. Here for example there were numerous photos of Pope John Paul II wagging his finger at President Bush.

But there is no surprise here, since Catholics have routinely ignored the Church's pronouncements for centuries and been praised for it. Today, for example, Catholics routinely ignore the Church's teachings on sexuality and materialism, and they are lauded. Four centuries ago, Catholics routinely ignored the Church's teachings on slavery, and they were lauded for it then.

So, what is religion good for, if it's unable to stop the war? ...if it's the same number of wars with and without religion, then why have religion, only so that some people don't die uneasy, believing, that they deserve Heaven, because they've done good in their lives?

I can only answer for myself; I am religious because I have read about Jesus Christ and the extraordinary stories attributed to his life by his followers, that their lives changed and the lives of millions (maybe billions) of people throughout history have also changed because of that story. Moreover, we believe that these stories and teachings are true, and we try to conform our lives to them. On that score, religion has certainly changed me and many others; it has hardly made us avoid an uneasy death, since we think not only about the good we have done in our life, but worry also about the evil we failed to avoid.

Maybe people would treasure life more if they didn't believe in an afterlife. Maybe not. :))

In my experience, the ones who treasure life most — especially other people's lives — are the ones who do believe in an afterlife. The Sisters of Mercy come to mind as an example, or the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, or any number of people who believe that the ill and the dying should be cared for because of the dignity they have as children of God, rather than discarded through abortion or euthanasia because their suffering makes us uncomfortable.

I know that not all religious people measure up to this standard, and I hope I don't convey any disrespect. I disagree not with your facts, but with with your conclusions. There is a great deal to criticize in religion; I have done so myself, as have many religious people. :-) But there is much to wonder and marvel at as well, and personally I prefer to marvel and wonder.

zsolt said...

That's rather self-contradictory, isn't it? A war that didn't happen because of the existence of religion? :-) If it didn't happen, I couldn't very well point to it.

Of course, I was witting, I'm sorry for missing the smiley. Also my comment was a little rushed, just as it's now. I just wanted to point out religion is somewhat responsible for the (religious) people and also for their acts. Yes, I believe in this, otherwise, how could it claim to be in control of our afterlife? That people don't respect what the Church commands is not only their fault, I think. I should say, that the Church has lost it's credibility, but this might be a bit harsh.

In addition, I might point to numerous examples of when the Catholic Church (and other churches, I'm sure) strove to avoid war and/or end it, but was ignored.

It seems to me that the Church is less effective than Green Peace for example. I wonder why? :)))

I just want to say, that I don't have much respect for the Church, but I respect the people, but not for their belief, but for the people they are. In my experience, it was not their religion, that made them the great people I respect. Most the people who put an accent on their religion, disgust me with their attitudes. I know of certain nuns, who devote very much energy to the sick people they were assigned to, yet don't lift a finger for the other sick people in the very same room of the hospital. Most of these people are so obsessed with the greater truth and love, that they don't notice the everyday things.

Anyway, I don't want to hurt you, if I was a bit too ironic, please accept my apologies.

Of course, this debate is just as pointless as any other regarding such subjective and general things, so I think I'll better stop.

jack perry said...

Since I don't believe the debate is pointless (or subjective), I will write some brief comments, admitting that it's a little unfair if you don't reply further.

I just wanted to point out religion is somewhat responsible for the (religious) people and also for their acts. Yes, I believe in this, otherwise, how could it claim to be in control of our afterlife?

I don't think this is a very accurate assessment. Religion doesn't claim to be in control of one's afterlife; rather, it claims to describe the facts of one's afterlife. Whether religious people behave well or badly has nothing to do with whether religion is true, unless religion claims to predict people's behavior.

To illustrate in a different context: science is somewhat responsible for what engineers do and also for their acts; otherwise, how could it claim to be in control of the results? Thus, science is responsible for the barbarous acts of the 20th century, such as the firebombing of Dresden, the atom bomb, and Dr. Mengele's experiments on Jews.

If this strikes you as a grossly unfair argument, the same is true with religion. People are responsible for their own actions.

Yet it's even more unfair with religion in some contexts. Why? I, for example, am Catholic. The basic premise of the Catholic religion is that people in their "natural" state can't do what's right, because we're broken by the original sin. To do what is right, we need grace. Even baptism doesn't remove the tendency to favor evil over good.

So, when you complain that religious people still do bad things, my natural reaction (as a Catholic) is, "well, of course: why shouldn't they? religious people are still broken."

Socratics and Marxists believe that people will do what's right if only they know what's right. Catholics believe otherwise: knowing what's right and what's wrong is an important first step, but Catholics also believe that people can know what's right, yet fail to do it.

It seems to me that the Church is less effective than Green Peace for example.

I can't name a single war that GreenPeace prevented. Can you? If not, the Church is more effective, in the context we're discussing of course. If you're considering a different context, it would be a different matter.

Anyway, I don't want to hurt you, if I was a bit too ironic, please accept my apologies.

I have a thicker skin than that. :-)

zsolt said...

Since I don't believe the debate is pointless (or subjective), I will write some brief comments, admitting that it's a little unfair if you don't reply further.

I believe it's pointless, because it will have no impact whatsoever on our lives (and thoughts even) besides taking up sometime time and energy. I believe the topic is rather subjective, as we live in so (and were raised in even more) different worlds, that probably it'll take some time to find out there's disagreement on some basic terms. For example, i expected you'd give an example for people who treasure both life and afterlife, but I was expecting some social class (maybe even as big as "the democrats"). And then you give the example of nuns, who are of course "good" people by definition, yet a very unrepresantative part of the population. Me for myself, I believe the generation of my parents (at least in the area were I was raised) are mostly both treasuring other people's lives (aka helpful) and believing in afterlife.

Anyway, as long as you choose to spend time on this conversation, I'll respect that and try to answer, to my best knowledge, which might not be much or even valuable at all.

I don't think this is a very accurate assessment. Religion doesn't claim to be in control of one's afterlife; rather, it claims to describe the facts of one's afterlife. Whether religious people behave well or badly has nothing to do with whether religion is true, unless religion claims to predict people's behavior.

Well, as long religion can set up a set of arbitrary rules (the 10 commandments) upon which our entrance to Heaven depends, I believe this is control. I believe exclusion from Church (I don't know the exact English term, sorry) is another technique for control. Of course, against Church's decision, God may let us into Heaven, but we're not supposed to believe in that, are we? As far as I see, Church tries to predict the behavior of God, and we don't want to upset God, are we?

I admit it, you are right, religion as an abstract concept can't be made responsible for the actions of the people. However, the Church, which consists of the people delivering religion to us, can, because in every human interaction there are some unspoken premises, that everyone understands and expects. When a mother is smiling at her child, she tells the child, that she'll protect her and try to do the best for her. When a priest is talking about the life of Jesus, we expect he's not deliberately lying and maybe that he'd even give his life for his beliefs, just as many of the saints did. And when we see him do bad things, we start disbelieving the saints. Of course, according to the concept of free will, nothing is responsible for our actions but ourselves, but we know, that the total independence assumption is not such a good predictor for our behavior, than some adding some dependence assumptions to it. Is there a reason to debate over religion as something totally abstract notion, devoid af any human factors? Maybe then Jesus should've only left us with only the 10 commandments and took a holiday on Hawaii, instead of making all those things, and suffering so much.

So, when you complain that religious people still do bad things, my natural reaction (as a Catholic) is, "well, of course: why shouldn't they? religious people are still broken."

I only want to say, that if religion can't have any impact on our actions, then why have it? Of course, if we're more polite with our neighbor, but still go to war, that's still an advancement that makes religion worth to have.

I feel we're a bit going in different directions about the impact of religion of our lives. However, now I don't have time to continue, I'll later do it.

jack perry said...

Well, as long religion can set up a set of arbitrary rules (the 10 commandments) upon which our entrance to Heaven depends, I believe this is control.

Religion doesn't set up the rules; religion reports what the rules are. The book of Exodus doesn't say that Moses sat down and wrote some rules to determine who should enter heaven and who shouldn't; rather, it reports what God told Moses. In any case, the ten commandments weren't presented as the preconditions for a good afterlife.

It's interesting how our terminology is different. I believe in God and in my religion, therefore for me it merely reports the truth; you disbelieve, so for you it is a mere question of "arbitrary" rules.

I believe exclusion from Church (I don't know the exact English term, sorry) is another technique for control.

The term is excommunication. I don't see it as a technique for control, but as a technique for self-preservation. Indeed, the phrase "purge the evil from your midst" is used in one instance where excommunication was recommended. Modern society has a similar practice, called jailing criminals.

Of course, against Church's decision, God may let us into Heaven, but we're not supposed to believe in that, are we? As far as I see, Church tries to predict the behavior of God, and we don't want to upset God, are we?

The Church has never actually stated definitively that someone is not in heaven, but only that certain people are in heaven (canonized saints).

However, the Church, which consists of the people delivering religion to us,

This is not my notion of the Church, nor do I think it's the Church's own notion of the Church. It is admittedly a common perception.

I only want to say, that if religion can't have any impact on our actions, then why have it?

I don't recall saying that religion doesn't have any impact on our actions, nor did I embrace a total independence assumption. What I said was that religion is not responsible for what people do; rather, people are.

I do believe that religion has an impact on our actions, and I alluded to as much before. If people in every religion commit crimes, if non-religious people commit crimes, and if crimes have increased both in number and in barbarity since Europeans decided in the 17th and 18th centuries to throw off the shackles of religion, then recent history seems to argue that humanity is better with religion than it was without. After all, recent history is full of the consequences of the rejection of religion, dogmatic and otherwise: take Western Europe's explicit rejection of Church teaching on slavery, add the barbarity of the explicitly anti-religious French Revolution and its Napoleonic offspring, flavor it with the wars of nationalism and imperialism, and top it off with communism, whose explicitly anti-religious fervor was one of its claims to superiority even in many circles. Yet how many tens of millions did Stalin kill, not counting his wars? How many millions did Mao kill; how many millions is Jim Jong Il killing now? One strains to find such parallels in the history of religion; even the Spanish Inquisition was mild by comparison.

zsolt said...

Religion doesn't set up the rules; religion reports what the rules are.

As long as they haven't been confirmed by independent parties, they're still arbitrary to me. :)))

The term is excommunication. I don't see it as a technique for control, but as a technique for self-preservation. Indeed, the phrase "purge the evil from your midst" is used in one instance where excommunication was recommended. Modern society has a similar practice, called jailing criminals.

Yes, but jailing servers the whole society, while excommunication only servers the Church. Plus, there's the posibility of amnesty in your lifetime, while I don't know if that ever happened in the case of excommunication. Plus, jailing puts you in a rather comfy cell for a time, while excommunication puts you in the pot to be cooked by the devil for eternity. :)))

The Church has never actually stated definitively that someone is not in heaven, but only that certain people are in heaven (canonized saints).

They were wise enough not to try to set bounds on "infinite mercy". :)))

If people in every religion commit crimes, if non-religious people commit crimes, and if crimes have increased both in number and in barbarity since Europeans decided in the 17th and 18th centuries to throw off the shackles of religion, then recent history seems to argue that humanity is better with religion than it was without.

Yeah, but expected life length went up, newborn mortality went down, and we've got television too. :))) I'd even go as far as saying that it was a good thing to throw off the shackles of religion, as there are more Catholics now than in the 17th, 18th centuries.

I believe that the present is quite okay and things never looked this good. :)))

Yet how many tens of millions did Stalin kill, not counting his wars? How many millions did Mao kill; how many millions is Jim Jong Il killing now? One strains to find such parallels in the history of religion; even the Spanish Inquisition was mild by comparison.

I believe that the Inquisition cannot be directly compared to World War II, because the technological level was so very different. I wonder if they had todays technology, how many people were left now? Why not try to compare the things based on their originators? Hitler started WWII, the Pope agreed with the Inquisition (I guess), let's try to compare the two people's traits. :))) Okay, maybe this is too much. Anyway, there were times, when bad painters couldn't have started a world war, and there were times when popes were selected not exactly because of religious merits.

jack perry said...

Before I answer, what exactly is your goal in this dialogue? I'm not really sure what your point is here.

Plus, there's the posibility of amnesty in your lifetime, while I don't know if that ever happened in the case of excommunication.

It happens all the time, actually. There are procedures for it. In some cases, it's easy; in others it's difficult.

Yeah, but expected life length went up, newborn mortality went down, and we've got television too.

You had me until television. :-)

I don't think the dichotomy you present is either fair or true. It's not as if throwing off the shackles of religion was required for increasing life expectancy. Indeed, Louis Pasteur was a devout Catholic, and possibly the man most responsible for our increased life expectancy. Pasteur argued in favor of unseen micro-organisms causing food to rot, milk to sour, and yeast to make bread rise. This was against spontaneous generation, the fashionable scientific theory of the time. Pasteur's work allows us to distribute safe food and drinks to a wide audience, yet Pasteur was given to writing things such as, "The more I know, the more nearly is my faith that of the Breton peasant. Could I but know all I would have the faith of a Breton peasant woman."

Thus, I don't think you are correct in suggesting that one is required to throw off the shackles of religion in order to advance humanity's well-being.

I wonder if they had todays technology, how many people were left now?

Since the Inquisition typically pardoned the vast majority of people brought before it (I have a scholarly reference for this if you want it), I don't believe modern technology would have worsened the situation.

Anyway, there were times, when bad painters couldn't have started a world war, and there were times when popes were selected not exactly because of religious merits.

You're pretty much repeating your previous argument, which I don't accept. The existence of religious people who ignore their religious guidance, or who even misuse religion to hurt others, does not suggest that religion is intrinsically evil, or better disregarded.

zsolt said...

Before I answer, what exactly is your goal in this dialogue? I'm not really sure what your point is here.

I have no goal at all, I just promised, I'd answer as long as you do. When you feel like we should stop because this conversation won't lead anywhere, I'll stop, as that's what I'm wishing for too. Plus, I don't think I'm any good at dialogues, and certainly not about religion. Religion was a very important part of my life, but that was long time ago, and my memory serves me not too well.

Thus, I don't think you are correct in suggesting that one is required to throw off the shackles of religion in order to advance humanity's well-being.

Yes, but you're not right either in saying that religion is required to keep the world a good place. :)))

Since the Inquisition typically pardoned the vast majority of people brought before it (I have a scholarly reference for this if you want it), I don't believe modern technology would have worsened the situation.

Okay, so what if the Cruciades were fought with atom bombs? Plus, maybe they used some "persuasive" techniques to make the people change their minds to beg for pardon. :)))

You're pretty much repeating your previous argument, which I don't accept. The existence of religious people who ignore their religious guidance, or who even misuse religion to hurt others, does not suggest that religion is intrinsically evil, or better disregarded.

Yes, and it's true the other way around too. The existence of religious people who take seriously their religious guidance, does not suggest that religion is intrinsically good and the source of all the good things on Earth. I believe if Pasteur wouldn't have invented pasteurization, someone elso would have, someone who wouldn't have to be necessarily religious. Chinese people had great ideas too, and I guess taoism qualifies more like atheism than religion.

jack perry said...

Yes, but you're not right either in saying that religion is required to keep the world a good place.

I think I'm right; you think I'm not right. I suppose here we'll have to agree to disagree, since we're going in circles now. :-)

But, if you do find a situation where Greenpeace prevented a war, let me know. I would like to know.

jack perry said...

Hey what happened to your website and blog, anyway? you're Zsolt Minier, right?

zsolt said...

I agree to disagree and let this be the final conclusion. :)

By the way, I was thinking about your case to defend and maybe it's impossible to prove it, because if it was possible, then other people would've done it centuries ago, and there would exist a magic formula that would convince everybody and we wouldn't have to have faith in God. But faith exists. An interesting question is, whether faith was first and Church developed the way it did, because it relied on faith or faith had to keep up with the Church. Anyway, I won't post here anymore, I don't think there was much use for me posting, and I always felt bad about it, I'm sorry.

Yeah, I'm Zsolt Minier, I deleted my website and blog because I felt it was obsolete. Then I recreated it, but now I'm blogging in Korean, because I started learning Korean again and it's good for practice. I just can't make longer sentences than 3-4 words. :))