Vox Day, War and religionMarch 20, 2010 — Deacon Duncan
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.