Vox Day, War and religion

Via Ed Brayton comes this word that Vox Day is up to his old tricks again. Apparently, now that the so-called “New Atheism” is no longer making headlines, he feels safe enough to try and float an abbreviated version of his straw-man arguments against atheism, in the form of a short stack of Powerpoint slides (downloadable here). Who knows, perhaps it will boost sales of his sad little book?

The first point in his presentation says that the New Atheists claim that religion causes war, and that Vox can prove statistically that it does not. As always, his refutation consists of ignoring the role of religion in war, and focusing instead on an oversimplification that distorts the data so badly he can make any claim he wants. Specifically, for each war in the Encyclopedia of Wars, he asks, “Is religion the cause of this war?” Not surprisingly, given his biases, he “discovers” that only 3.2% of wars are caused by non-Muslim religions, and fully 93% are allegedly “Non-Religious Wars.”

Wars, of course, are very complex phenomena with very complex causes. And religion is indeed a significant factor in quite a few of those wars,  It might be useful and informative to examine all the wars in recorded history to ask what role religion played in each. Was it provocative? supportive? indifferent? resistent? disruptive? Such a study, though, would produce results that would lend too much support to the New Atheists’ observations, at least if examined by an unbiased group of historians.

So instead of undertaking an unbiased and instructive approach to history, what Vox does is to take the binary approach of asking whether religion was THE cause of any given war, or not. In his argument, the mere existence of other factors, like economics or ethnicity or personal ambition, is sufficient to qualify religion as not being THE cause of the war. And thus he concludes that, by his standards, 93% of all wars were not caused by religion.

That’s hardly surprising. Indeed, the only surprising result from such an approach is that he ended up with any religious wars at all. A motivated historian could easily cite poverty, illiteracy, and socioeconomic factors behind Islamic aggression, for example, and by consistently applying the same approach, end up concluding that 100% of all wars are non-religious.

Vox doesn’t go quite that far. His weakness is that he secretly agrees with the New Atheists, at least as far as Islam is concerned. For example, he makes a consistent distinction between religious violence in general, and Islamic religious violence, which he admits is at least partially religiously driven. In his eyes, though, the New Atheists are a greater threat, and consequently he trumps up a straw-man argument and a bogus “statistical” refutation in order to declare victory and move on.

We’ve covered all this before, but today I wanted to look at one of the unique features of religion that make it particularly prone to aggravating our inherent tendency to wage war on one another. As I mentioned before, wars are complex and have complex causes, but (unlike Vox) I think it might be helpful to consider the actual role played by religion in important human endeavors like warfare.

The thing is, God does not show up in real life, or at least, the gods of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam don’t. This undeniable fact has an inescapable consequence: our only basis for what we believe about God is what men say and think and feel about Him. But men don’t all agree about Him, and therein lies the rub: because God does not show up in real life, how can you determine which men are teaching the “correct” doctrines about Him?

If it were a question about something that exists in the real world like, say, the diameter of the moon, the question could be settled by making careful real-world observations and measurements. No such mechanism exists for observing and verifying the qualities of deities that are consistently and universally absent from the real world, however. Theological arguments have to be won by force: either force of persuasion, or force of law, or force of arms. The only alternative is not to win at all.

Historically, this fact has had a tremendous impact on people’s willingness to conduct war, because even if religion is not the official “cause” of the war, a common and almost inevitable superstition says that God’s blessing determines who the good guys are and thus who will win the war (as witness the myriad “God Bless America” bumper stickers that popped up after 9/11). As the Bible itself teaches in numerous passages, victory in battle is a vindication of one’s religious belief and obedience.

Even Osama bin Ladin, as he watched the fall of the twin towers, can be heard on the video to be murmuring “Allah is great, Allah is great.” Military victory reinforced his belief that Islam was the true religion of God. And America responded in the same spirit, overthrowing the government of Iraq (who had nothing to do with 9/11) because they were Muslim. By defeating them (and their Allah), we validated our national belief that our Christian God was the true God.

After all, God does not show up in real life, so how else are you going to measure, in real-world terms, whose opinions about God are the most powerful? If you can’t superstitiously assume that material wars are merely the physical extension of a spiritual war between light and darkness, good and evil, truth and heresy, then how else can you know? If physical military strength isn’t the material manifestation of spiritual strength (i.e. righteousness), then how can you measure the true strength and power of someone’s spiritual beliefs?

This mechanism works for the whole spectrum of warfare, from the bomb-dropping, artillery-firing, fix-the-bayonets-and-charge of all out war to the subtler but no less devastating cultural warfare that tries to seize control school boards and that passes laws oppressing homosexuals. Believers lack real-world verification for their faith unless they can “prove” the superiority of their opinions by oppressing and defeating those who do not share their beliefs. Spiritual disputes extend into physical disputes in hopes that physical victory will serve as spiritual victory.

Reality-based conclusions don’t have this problem. This is why, for example, you can have literal bombs being thrown at mosques because of arguments about which branch of Islam correctly perpetuates the original teachings of Mohammed, but you don’t typically find one nation declaring war against another over the question of whether thorium decays into lead. Where real-world answers exist, we can get our answers from the real world. Everywhere else, we get whatever “answers” we’re strong enough to take by force.

In theory, we could avoid this problem if believers would insist on real-world proof of anyone’s doctrines before embracing them. But there’s two problems with this approach: (a) that would be “testing God,” which believers universally abhor, and (b) that’s exactly what the New Atheists are proposing. If you don’t want people using literal or figurative war to try and settle questions about non-real-world issues, then don’t embrace beliefs that have no real-world foundation. Stick to what can be confirmed and verified objectively and realistically, and there won’t be doctrinal issues that need to be settled by contests of strength.

I know, I know. That would make too much sense. Plus it wouldn’t satisfy the desire to believe. I know it will  never  happen. I’m just saying that, you know, the New Atheists have a valid point. War is the ultimate means by which believers conclusively “prove” the superiority of their superstitions over the beliefs of others.  So long as God fails to show up in real life, they really have no alternative.

So despite Vox Day’s over-simplified and hopelessly biased “statistics,” there is a religious component to needless human conflicts, whether these conflicts manifest as overt violence or as the lesser warfare of discrimination and oppression. It’s a problem we would do well to solve, though psychology and sociology offer us little hope of resolving it with our current abilities and understanding. Acknowledging that the New Atheists have a valid point, though, would at least be a step in the right direction.

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Posted in Society, TIA, Unapologetics. 7 Comments »

7 Responses to “Vox Day, War and religion”

  1. Dominic Saltarelli Says:

    DD, you’re going to have to do better than this if you want to convince me. Vox’s statistics aren’t a rabbit he pulled out of a hat. The decision as to whether to attribute religion as the cause to the wars chronicled was made by the historians who compiled the Encyclopedia that Vox is quoting. All he is doing, then, is reporting what they wrote.

    All I see in this post is handwaving with no substance behind it. You would have been much better served by simply picking a war from the Encyclopedia Vox cites that doesn’t list religion as a cause and show how it was a factor in the sparking the conflict. What you’ve presented is simply too easily dismissed to be taken seriously.

  2. ThatOtherGuy Says:

    Interestingly, Dominic, I can’t tell from your post that you read anything other than the first two paragraphs. I found DD’s thesis to be clear and well-supported. Apparently one’s mileage may vary.

  3. Deacon Duncan Says:


    I think you might be missing the difference between religion being A cause of war and religion being THE cause of war. In all the instances where religion is one of many complex factors contributing to the ongoing conflict, Vox puts the conflict in the “non-religious war” category. The existence of the other factors means (to him) that religion is not THE cause.

    Since you ask for examples, here are a few “non-religious” wars, from his book:

    • The Palestinian conflict and other Israeli/Arab wars and skirmishes
    • Violence between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland
    • The Chechan war between Muslims and Christians
    • The Crusades

    So it’s not that the authors of the Encyclopedia of Wars have failed to identify that religion is A contributing factor in these conflicts, it’s that Vox uses any excuse he can come up with to move a war into the “non-religious” category.

    For example. if a region has two different religious populations that don’t get along, any conflict between the two becomes a mere “ethnic” trouble by the simple expedient of ignoring the religious component in the two ethnic cultures. An unbiased historian would want to study the role of religion in creating and maintaining those “ethnic” barriers that kept the two sides divided into two sides, but Vox is only interested in skewing the statistics towards his desired conclusion. If he can call the Muslims “ethnic Muslims” and the Christians “ethnic Christians,” then any fighting between them is *poof* an ethnic conflict, not a religious war.

  4. Dominic Saltarelli Says:

    Now you’re building a case. The original post was a rather hollow appeal to complexity and speculation. Countering what is presented as hard facts with hypothetical “what ifs” just isn’t going to cut it, you need hard facts of your own.

  5. Tacroy Says:

    Countering what is presented as hard facts with hypothetical “what ifs” just isn’t going to cut it, you need hard facts of your own.

    Vox Day may have presented his “only 3% of all wars are caused by religion” statement as a fact, but honestly, that doesn’t even pass the smell test – at the moment, I cannot think of any war that had only an insignificant religious motivation. Duncan was addressing the misapprehension you seem to be operating under, that this ridiculous statement bears merit as a fact. He was not doing what you seem to want and addressing it as if it were a fact.

  6. Dominic Saltarelli Says:

    You’ve got to be kidding me.

    First, I said “presented as…”

    Second, if you disagree with a presentation of evidence as being factual, basing said disagreement on gut feeling and intuition is only going to make me laugh at you.

    I’ll give you an example. Another of Day’s arguments involves citing the religious affiliation of prison inmates in the UK to show those of no religious affiliation in fact tend to be less moral than the average citizen. You could make a wishy-washy argument about how atheists seem to be great people and the UK data is obviously flawed somehow, or some kind of fluke…

    Or you could do this.

  7. Deacon Duncan Says:

    You could also do this.

    Thanks for your comments, by the way. Honest criticism is always welcome, and often improves the quality of the original post through the ensuing discussion.