TIA: “The best strategy is an incompetent enemy.” — Vox DayMarch 19, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
Vox Day has announced that he’s not going to address my analysis of his book until I’ve finished, which is too bad. Fortunately, blacknad has convinced him to give us another sample of the approach he intends to take.
TIA: a deeply clueless critic
As I mentioned previously, I’m going to let Evangelical Realism finish his review of TIA before responding to it in its entirety, but since I had a request to respond to one of his more amusing attempts, I shall do so here. It should demonstrate the truth of my battleground aphorism: the best strategy is an incompetent enemy.
You know, he just might be right about that, though perhaps not in the way he expects…
Not surprisingly, Vox opens with his usual ad hominem, just like he did at the opening of Chapter 5 of TIA. He defends this tactic by claiming that he’s only making “[a] truthful statement relevant to the matter under discussion”. But an attack “against the man” (which is what ad hominem means) is an attack against the man. He claims his attacks are true and relevant, but who wouldn’t? It just means he is trying to convince people he’s right. But if he can demonstrate, via the evidence, that his claims are both true and relevant, then we can reach our own conclusions without needing his say-so. And if he can’t, then we would be foolish to just take his word for it.
Apparently, I’ve become even more evil in Vox’s eyes than Harris and Dawkins, however, since he accuses me of not only ignorance, but “deep dishonesty.”
Second, notice that Evangelical Realism is a deeply dishonest reviewer. He repeatedly attempts to hold me to a completely different standard than he holds Harris, Dawkins and the others, moreover, he is too ignorant of military history to understand the way in which their errors demonstrate their obvious lack of knowledge about the subject. ER makes no attempt to demonstrate that Harris and Dawkins possess any knowledge of military history or military science whatsoever…
This is because the question of religious influence, in the context of wars and other conflicts, is primarily a psychological and sociological question, not a question of military history and tactics. Vox’s argument is like trying to prove that opposable thumbs contribute nothing to cooking, on the grounds that he’s read six ancient cookbooks which fail to mention opposable thumbs, and that restaurant critics for the past umpteen years have only rarely cited thumbs as playing any kind of notable role in the culinary results. In attempting to divert the discussion into a debate over tactics, strategies, and the complex (and oversimplified) historical causes, Vox is ignoring the truly relevant questions, and merely throwing up a murky smoke screen. (But remember, he wants you to think that I’m the dishonest one!)
Vox’s goal is quite simple: to create a pretext—any pretext—for claiming to have found something he can prove wrong, thus giving him another pretext for claiming to have proven his opponent wrong. For example, he says:
First, I conceded no such thing. I merely admitted the apparent logic of the argument.
He’s got me, right? I said he admitted something that he didn’t actually admit, and he caught me. Or did he? Look at what I actually said (which he even quoted).
He begins by conceding the visible merit of the assertion that it does make a difference whether your soldiers sincerely believe in an afterlife and in glorious rewards for those who die in battle. But even though Harris and Dawkins are actually correct, they’re still wrong.
So all I actually stated is that he was conceding (or admitting, if you prefer) the visible merit of the argument—what Vox calls the apparent logic. And I then pointed out that (for Vox) this argument is nonetheless wrong. I alluded to the fact that the argument is a valid point, though I did not attribute this view to Vox, and in fact immediately pointed out that he treats it as “wrong.” But that doesn’t matter to him—he didn’t like how I said it, and that’s all the pretext he needs for pretending I got it wrong.
But let’s look at the rest of Vox’s statement.
I merely admitted the apparent logic of the argument – which is merely a variant of the “no atheist in foxholes” that so many atheists angrily deny.
Oo, nice dig. The argument—which he claims to refute—is just a variant of the “no atheist in foxholes” argument which atheists object to, so atheists who want to contradict Vox are, so to speak, damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
But let’s look at those two arguments. The “no atheist in foxholes” argument is an appeal to the self-congratulatory theistic idea that all atheists secretly know God exists, and admit it when their life is in danger. But what was Vox’s argument?
The religious soldier is only risking a part of his existence, a rather small and unimportant part in the case of the Christian soldier who confidently expects eternal life awaiting him in the New Jerusalem. The shaheed finds courage in the prospect of seventy-two virgins and the delights of paradise. The pagan Norse warrior fearlessly anticipated endless feasting and battle in Valhalla…
Even the Hindu soldier risks nothing but a single turn of the wheel, whereas the atheist stakes the totality of his existence. There is, then, an economic argument to be made in logical support of this claim of religious war-enabling, since the perceived cost of war is obviously much greater for the atheist than for the theist…
[Footnote] One wonders if atheists would be so swift to embrace this logic if they understood it could be used to assert an atheistic inclination towards cowardice just as easily as it supports a hypothetical theistic inclination for warmongering.
Even a casual look at these two arguments ought to show that they are fundamentally different both in their premises and in their conclusions. The foxhole argument essentially asserts that there are no real atheists, whereas Vox’s asserts that atheists are both real and more likely to be cowards because they have more at stake. The only connection between the two arguments is that they both mention atheists in the context of war. Neither one is a variation of the other.
But more than that, look at Vox’s reasoning: an atheist who volunteers to fight in defense of his country is more “inclined towards cowardice” because he’s willing to risk more than the believer? Risking a greater potential sacrifice for your country is less brave? What kind of reasoning is that? And does Vox understand the difference between bravery and suicide? For someone who makes such a big deal out of other people’s familiarity with military science, you’d think he’d have some awareness of General Patton’s assessment of the value of giving your life for your country. (I trust he won’t mind if I hold him to the same standards as he seeks to impose on Harris and Dawkins…)
But again, Vox’s goal is not to enhance our understanding of the issues involved. It’s simply to make atheists look bad, using whatever pretexts he can contrive towards that end—even if he has to go to ridiculous extremes.
Religion does not play a secondary contributory role in war. It does not play a tertiary contributory role in war. It plays virtually no role in war at all, it is not even involved in any way more than 90 percent of the time.
[V]irtually no religion has historically had much to do with war, if anything, except one.
So desperate is Vox to deny what Harris and Dawkins have said that he does not pause to think about the implications of what he is saying. So let’s do it for him. Let’s take a moment to imagine what it would be like in some parallel universe, on a planet Earth in the Vox Zone, where religion is so impotent and irrelevant that it has indeed made no meaningful contribution to any war.
In this parallel Earth, God has never blessed any nation with victory, because no believer has ever been influenced enough by his religion to pray about it. No car on Vox Earth sports any “God Bless Our Troops” ribbon or sticker, nor has any believer prayerfully considered whether or not he ought to enlist. No believer has ever felt any “call of God” to go to the battlefield to render aid to the sick and wounded, nor has anyone felt that religion ought to lead men to pursue peace by becoming conscientious objectors (or draft dodgers). When the Nazis and Japanese were defeated at the end of World War II on Vox Earth, God deserved no credit for blessing the Allies, or turning the tide of battle in their favor. He couldn’t even claim to have inspired any meaningful effort on the home front in support of manufacturing, rationing, food drives, and so on. Religion made no primary, secondary, tertiary, or any other -ary contributions to the war effort at all.
The same applied, of course, to Joshua’s conquest of Canaan in the Bible, as well as the revolt of the Maccabees. Obedience or disobedience to the will of God has never influenced the outcome of any battle. What victories either side won, were won by purely secular efforts, since God was irrelevant. During the US Civil War, the Battle Hymn of the Republic was never written, because neither side saw the conflict as involving God in any perceptible way. Nobody in post-WWII America ever supported Israel on the grounds that the Jews were God’s Chosen People, so it was wiped out in just under 20 years after its establishment, confounding a series of prophecies that, people had to admit, didn’t have a whole lot to do with real-world politics and warfare anyway, despite their references to wars and rumors of wars. Sure, it proved the prophecies wrong, but that was a small price to pay for genuine peace in the Middle East. Then again, without religious reasons for “God’s Chosen People” to return to “the land God promised to Abraham’s seed,” would there even have been a Middle East conflict in the first place?
The more I think about it, the more I rather like Vox Earth, where religion does indeed have absolutely nothing to contribute to significant human endeavors like war and politics. I expect Harris and Dawkins would find it a bit appealing as well. Imperfections would remain, but in many ways life would be nicer if, as Vox seems to argue, religion were so pointless and irrelevant to human culture that merely identifying ethnic factors in a conflict would be sufficient to eliminate religion as a meaningful influence. Meanwhile, though, back to real life, and Vox’s continuing polemic.
ER gets it wrong again here. The Harris claim I am rebutting here is not “the claim that religion plays a contributory role in violent group-vs-group conflict”, but rather the specific claim that “conflicts that seem driven entirely by territorial concerns, therefore, are often deeply rooted in religion.” In these four cases, none of the conflicts are rooted in religion at all, let alone deeply.
Vox originally quoted an entire paragraph from Sam Harris’ book:
[F]ar greater numbers of people fall into conflict with one another because they define their moral community on the basis of their religious affiliation: Muslims side with other Muslims, Protestants with Protestants, Catholics with Catholics. These conflicts are not always explicitly religious. But the bigotry and hatred that divide one community from another are often the products of their religious identities. Conflicts that seem driven entirely by terrestrial concerns, therefore, are often deeply rooted in religion.
Once again, Vox creates a pretext for claiming I “got it wrong” just because I paraphrased the larger paragraph and he chose (for this specific rebuttal) to pick just one sentence out of that context. But look at his response. Harris is saying two things: (1) There are conflicts that seem to be driven by terrestrial concerns (e.g. politics, ethnicity, economics), and (2) some of these conflicts are fed by underlying factors rooted in religion. Vox’s rebuttal is to cite the very same “terrestrial concerns” that Harris has already acknowledged as part of the equation. Vox is contributing nothing new to the debate, he’s only zeroing in on one over-simplified set of causes as “the” basis (singular) for the conflict, and claiming to have thus disproved what Harris said (even though Harris already pointed out the existence of these other factors).
Vox is so intent on oversimplifying the problem of war, he actually goes to the extreme of denying that religion has anything to do with the Middle East conflict! And he accuses Harris and Dawkins of having an ignorant approach to the history of war?
Vox makes a few more amusing points. For example, when I used the 50 United States as an example of a nation annexing new states without invading and conquering them (i.e. militarily), Vox asserted that we did grow from the original 13 states to a nation of 50 by a process of invasion and conquest. I know he’s probably thinking about the various conflicts between Old World immigrants and the original Native American nations, but still, it’s rather funny that he would make an ambiguous and inaccurate reference to 37 states being added through military invasion and conquest, given the abuse he has showered on Harris and Dawkins for not spelling out every dotted i and crossed t in all of the history of military operations.
Perhaps it’s just that he’s deliberately missing my point in order to create yet another pretext for claiming I “got it wrong.” Then again, I did have a public school education (which Vox seems to associate with bad things), so perhaps my teachers simply failed to mention the war between the United States and the Republic of Texas, and similar military invasions and conquests of the territories of Alaska and Oregon and Missouri and so on, eh?
Vox follows that one up by suggesting that the historical conflict between the nation now known as France and the nation now known as Germany is a conflict that historically had only one side, and not the two sides normally required for confrontations.
I am using this example to rebut the idea that group identities come from religion, as Harris and Dawkins claim. In this case, they cannot have, since the identities predate the religious divide…
[T]he group identities stem from the slaughter, the slaughter doesn’t stem from the group identity! They were all Franks, brother fighting brother and uncle fighting nephew. The Franks subsequently called French didn’t hate the Franks subsequently called Germans for being not-French, they hated them for being prone to invade them no matter what they were caleld [sic]. ER’s reasoning is circular.
I’m not sure what Vox thinks the “religious divide” is between the French and the Germans, but it’s pretty funny that he’s so entrenched in denying whatever Harris says that he can no longer recognize that the two sides in the conflict were still two sides, regardless of what they might have had in common genealogically. Two opposing armies (or one opposing army versus one group of overpowered civilians) are two identifiable groups. You know who your friends are, and you know who your enemies are. You don’t say, “Oh, we’re all Franks, therefore there’s no way we can perceive any kind of distinction between the group we belong to and the group we’re fighting against unless our great-great-great grandchildren come up with unique names for each group.” Before either group could say, “Hey, why don’t we go invade them,” the concepts of “we” and “them” have to have distinct, identifiable meanings. The existence of the groups is a prerequisite for conflict between the groups. How else could the participants have known who was doing the invading, and who was being invaded?
Oh well, at least he acknowledges the essential correctness of one of my primary arguments, which is that there is more to military science, and to armed conflicts, than just strategy and tactics.
Not every aspect of the military has anything to do with strategy and tactics, while the chaplaincy has its place but no one with any knowledge or experience of the military would consider it to be of of any strategic or tactical importance.
Not that this stopped Vox from trying to “prove” the non-role of religion in warfare by noting its absence from ancient books on military tactics and strategy. Pretext pretext pretext. Vox knows that there’s more to the military than what Sun Tzu wrote about, but if he can make the observation that Sun Tzu didn’t mention any gods, he can use that (entirely irrelevant) fact as a pretext for claiming that he’s proven Harris and Dawkins wrong about the role played by religion in the lives and conduct of soldiers and civilians.
He closes with one final update:
He’s now trying to make the bizarre point that admitting the obvious existence of chaplains in some Western armies somehow excuses the complete ignorance of Dawkins and Harris of all things military as they attempt to argue that religious faith is somehow dangerous to mankind.
Those who have read my posts will recognize that I have never remotely said that Dawkins and Harris are completely ignorant about all things military, let alone claiming that the existence of chaplains excuse such a thing. But remember, Vox wants you to think that I am a dishonest reviewer. I’m sure he won’t mind if people judge him by the same standards as he judges me.