TIA Tuesday: Government is the root of all evilSeptember 30, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
Vox Day has an interesting strategy for dealing with hostile facts. Step one: make a pretense of agreeing with the truth, so as to give what follows an air of impartiality. Step two: introduce some kind of fallacious or erroneous quibble, so as to make it sound like you’re presenting the other side of the argument. And step three: pile on a huge stack of well-documented but irrelevant facts so as to make it sound like you’re proving your point. There’s no step four, because all that really matters is creating the impression that you’ve refuted step one, and if steps two and three don’t do that for you, you’re probably dealing with someone who is unreasonably biased in favor of objective truth, and you shouldn’t waste your time trying to convince them.
We’re in the last section of Chapter 12 of TIA, in which Vox tries to deny the charge that Aztec human sacrifices is an example of religion leading to a needless loss of human life. Here he is giving us Step One of the three-step tactic.
If one looks at the history of the world, there are two facts which no reasonable man can deny: first, that people do bad things, and second, that religion has been central to people’s lives for as long as history has been recorded. The centrality of religion in past societies means that it has been a mechanism for an amount of these bad things people have done, which occasionally makes it appear that religion is the source of the evil behavior.
Despite the weasel-words (“occasionally makes it appear that religion is the source…”), this is a fair concession that religion and violence do go hand-in-hand at times, and that, far from being an irrelevant fantasy that has nothing to do with how people behave, religion is actually central to many people’s lives and how they live them. Halfway through the second sentence of this section, however, we’re already easing our way into Step Two.
The centrality of religion in past societies means that it has been a mechanism for an amount of these bad things people have done, which occasionally makes it appear that religion is the source of the evil behavior. And while it pains me to make use of a much overused expression, in this case, it is absolutely true that correlation is not causation.
The Unholy Trinity makes no effort to provide any evidence of a causal relationship between religion and the various evils they cite as proof of religion’s historically deadly and venomous nature.
You might think that, since Vox accuses the New Atheists of neglecting to take a detailed look at the relationship between religion and bad behavior, he would rectify the problem by exploring the relationship between religion and bad behavior, in order to see if it was indeed a causal relationship. Instead, what he does is to offer us the fallacious assumption that things only have one cause, and therefore if anything else exists which can be called “the cause,” then religion is not the cause. For example, he excuses Aztec religion from any responsibility for human sacrifice (that is, from causing the practice) by suggesting that it was necessary in order for the minority rulers to keep the majority subjects under control.
A ruling people surrounded and outnumbered by their subjects require a mechanism to enable them to maintain their position of primacy. There is a need to prevent the ratio of the population delta between rulers and ruled from getting out of hand as well as a necessity to inspire enough fear in the subjected populace to prevent it from rebelling on a regular basis.
As in Chapter 5 of TIA, he presents the secular aspects of the situation as though their mere existence proved that religion played no causative role in fact that hundreds of thousands of innocent people were ritually slain by priests in order to secure the favor of the gods. No mention is made of the influence exerted by the religious beliefs of the people (whether they were watching, performing, or being the sacrifices), nor is there any consideration of the question of whether the secular factors would have been sufficient, in the absence of religious support, to enable the deaths. Vox wants us to jump to the conclusion that complex sociological phenomena only have one cause, and that cause was, well, government.
There is an institution that has caused great harm to humanity, which is responsible for nearly all of the wars, all of the mass atrocities and untold human suffering throughout history, but it is not religion. That institution is government. And regardless of whether you consider government to be a necessary evil or the source of all that is good in society, it cannot be denied that it is the institution of government which bears the direct responsibility for every tangible evil that the New Atheists have accused religion of committing.
Forgive me, but I can’t help comparing Vox’s opinions to those of the Apostle Paul:
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
This is one of those aspects of religion that Vox studiously ignores: the way religion encourages people to do what this allegedly evil government tells them. If it is true, as he has already conceded, that religion is central to most people’s lives, and if this central, influential religion is telling people to go along with the institution that Vox has identified as being responsible for the evils, then the causal relationship Vox is trying to obscure does indeed exist.
This, of course, is only the tip of the iceberg, as far as religion’s political influence is concerned. How many states so far have passed democratically-engineered, Christian-sponsored laws and constitutional amendments designed to deny gays the right to marry their true loves? How many Christians based their presidential votes on their perception of God’s will (and the need to show the heathen God’s wrath on anyone who would dare attack a “Christian nation”?) How many terrorists turn to Allah for the strength and courage they need in order to risk and/or sacrifice their lives in the name of their brothers and sisters in the faith?
Even the most obvious modern example of religion-inspired harm is ultimately a matter of secular power. Bin Laden and the al-Qaeda terrorists have attacked the West to achieve a specific military goal, the withdrawal of Western troops from Saudi Arabia and Iraq. And the Muslims now inhabiting the former Christendom are not agitating for the right to practice their religion, but rather to achieve greater political influence in those countries to which they have immigrated.
Once again, if bin Ladin stands to achieve any secular benefits, then Islam has nothing whatsoever to do with why he pursues terrorism, because complex sociological phenomena only have one cause. Or so Vox would have us believe, because he never bothers to explore the deeper question of why bin Ladin finds it so objectionable to have non-Muslim armies on Muslim soil. Bin Ladin is not a government, he is (pardon the expression) a crusader for Islam, and his goal is the glory of God. Even if he could achieve secular dominance in any particular area, he would be pursuing it in order to give Allah the dominion. Vox’s detailed exposition of all the secular aspects of the situation is merely a hand-waving exercise, attempting to distract attention from the religious factors driving bin Ladin’s agenda.
I’ve quoted you step one and step two, but I’m going to spare you the irrelevant details of step three. Vox jumps from the Aztecs to the Mongols to Caesar to the French Huguenots to Sargon II to Alexander the Great to Sherman’s March through Georgia, in a vain attempt to dazzle us with how many secular circumstances he can appeal to. And of course there are a good number, but it’s all a red herring, a way of not looking too closely at the real-world relationship between religion and loss of life. Religious and secular factors do often combine to produce a given result, and where those results are evil, it would be to our benefit to understand the real role religion has played, especially if religion is contributing that extra little something that makes it all happen.
Vox closes with a repetition of Step Two, the fallacious assumption that bad things only have one cause, and therefore that cause was not religion.
Whether God exists or not, whether people believe in the concept of a deity or not, religion is simply incapable of causing great harm to humanity. It can only be a scapegoat, because it does not provide the primary motivation or the means for crime, for war, or for repression and massacre. One might as reasonably blame plate tectonics for creating the physical geography that has played such a significant role in determining historical patterns of conflict. Even on the rare occasions when religion can be positively correlated with the incidence of great harm, a closer examination will usually show that it is neither the controlling nor the causal factor. The individual will to power does not exist because of religion, nor does the institution of government. In neither case is religious motivation required to inspire them to murderous action and there are more historical examples of religion acting as a mitigating force on their lethal proclivities than as an exacerbating one.
Just last week we were looking at Vox’s claim that the Crusades offer Western civilization its only hope of surviving the Muslim onslaught. Whether he meant that in military terms, or whether he meant that the West needs to change the religion of the Muslims, it’s clear that he really does know better than to pretend that “religion is simply incapable of causing great harm.” The existence of secular tools, and secular resources, and secular motivations, does not imply that all religious contributions are insignificant or non-existent. Vox is simply putting on his faith-based blinders, and not allowing himself to see the actual connections between religion and evil. And some would say that that sort of thing, in itself, is an example of religion “causing great harm.”