In which I agree with Vox DayDecember 31, 2010 — Deacon Duncan
I’ve been reading the comments over at Vox’s blog, and it’s pretty hilarious, not to mention providing double your recommended minimum daily dose of irony. For example, here’s Vox attacking the person who brought up my TIA series:
You’re absolutely wrong. Terrible example and you have apparently not read TIA nor understood that Duncan doesn’t even begin to rebut its arguments. He does not show that religion was involved as a pretext in more than 7 percent of the wars in recorded human history. Nor does he explain why no military tactician or strategist has EVER incorporated religion into their military tactics or strategy. His critique is totally invalid.
Now stop making groundless assertions and be specific. Precisely what about that his argument that religion causes war do you find persuasive?
Notice, the primary crime he accuses his critic of is a failure to read and understand the opposing point of view. He then insists that I failed to rebut his argument, and he demands to know what is so persuasive about my argument that religion causes war. Does he have a point? Does my argument—meaning the argument I actually made, not the one Vox attributes to me—fall apart when examined in the light of the evidence Vox cites?
Turning back to the post in question, what I originally wrote is this:
His main point is that religion is not the primary cause of most wars, which is perfectly reasonable and accurate. [Emphasis added.] Unfortunately, he pretends that Harris and Dawkins and company are claiming that eliminating religion would eliminate war, which is a pretty blatant straw man. (He even admits at one point that Harris and Dawkins “[never] state that they believe religion is the direct and primary cause of war.”)
Yep, as usual, Vox has not a clue what he is talking about. He claims that none of my posts rebutted anything he said, but has he even read what I wrote? Or is he the one who is failing to read and understand what the opposing side is saying? He’s so desperate to dismiss me as “unintelligent, ignorant, and intellectually dishonest” that he completely fails to notice the fact that I agree with him about religion as a false cause of war. In fact, I think Vox is overstating the influence of religion by about 7%.
Let’s ignore, for the time being, the issue of battlefield generals using or not using religion as a tactic or strategy. By the time the generals are on the field attacking the enemy, the war has already been caused. There’s clearly no point in seeking the cause of a war amongst the choices generals make after the war is already underway.
But aside from that, Vox and I are pretty much in agreement as regards the role of religion in the events leading up to the wars of history. My chief critique of Vox’s argument was that he failed to spend any time at all discussing the role(s) that religion did, could, or should play in times of national crisis leading up to possible war. I’m not saying that religion does have such a role or roles, I’m merely pointing out that Vox’s analysis failed to document some very important considerations, not to say the MOST important consideration, in determining what connection, if any, exists between religion and war.
If we do take this into account, though, we can begin to document how really impotent and useless religion is in matters of genuine significance. War is a pretty big deal, as far as the real world is concerned. It changes boundaries, destroys people and lands, changes customs and sometimes even languages. We would expect, if any world religions incorporated a deity Who genuinely cared about mankind (or about good and evil), that at least some religions ought to have an unmistakable or even supernatural influence on the course of events leading up to (or away from) a war.
Naturally, there are may roles that religion could play. For example, if there were a genuine deity to pray to, then national leaders would be able to pray for guidance. If divine wisdom were bestowed on them from above, advising them on whether or not their cause was just and their chance of victory secure, then this would indeed put religion in a highly influential role with respect to the circumstances leading up to (or away from) the war. Likewise if there were practical advice/wisdom to be gleaned from a study of the religion’s holy scriptures, either by the leaders or (in a democracy) by the voters.
Another role religion could play would be the very important role of uniting people into a common body, i.e. a united front with which to face the enemy. Religious faith could play a vital role in supplying manpower for the war effort, as people were led by their god to make personal sacrifices and commitments for the greater good of all. With a real god behind it, religion might influence wars by miraculous means, such as, oh, making the invading soldiers all go blind so that they couldn’t fight.
If religion did indeed have any substantial, real-world influence over the course of events, then (a) Vox would be wrong, but more importantly (b) it would matter which religion were the true religion. After all, if we’re going to fight wars over religion, we don’t want to fight for the wrong one, eh?
What Vox has discovered, though, is that in every real-world case, the true power lies, not in religion, but in purely secular, materialistic factors. Religion is a passive, empty symbol, which men invest with whatever meaning or interpretation suits the need of the moment. And, as Vox has shown, the need of the moment is dictated by secular factors, like politics, or economics, or sheer human cussedness. Casual observers might be fooled by the apparent role of religion in war, but to jump to that conclusion is to stop too soon and to fail to apprehend the purely secular factors that are driving and controlling the religious aspect. Religion is the passive puppet of greater, real-world forces.
Ironically, Vox concludes that Islam is the only religion with any significant influence over whether or not nations will go to war. I think it’s safe to say, however, that that’s more an emotional reaction against 9/11 than a serious historical analysis. In the 93% of wars he says were not caused by religion, he cites geopolitical, ethnic, economic and other secular factors as the real causes, yet if we look at the 7% of wars that are allegedly religious, we’ll find the same factors at work, with religion serving merely the same empty, symbolic role as the colors on the national flag.
It’s as foolish to insist that someone must be wrong all of the time as it is to insist that someone must be right all of the time. (I realize that in saying that, I’m rebutting the theme, if not the whole thesis, of TIA, but I digress.) Not everything Vox says is wrong, and in this case I think he’s a lot more correct than even he gives himself credit for.
The circumstances leading up to (away from?) international war are very momentous and vitally important circumstances. Vox is doing a great service both to believers and to unbelievers by documenting the fact that religion plays no role at all—”does not play a secondary contributory role in war. It does not play a tertiary contributory role in war,” as he says. Religion is utterly passive and irrelevant, a sock puppet that merely “speaks” whatever words it pleases men to put into its mouth.
And that goes for more than just war too. Thanks for the help, Vox.