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Religious violence

November 24, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

Dinesh D’Souza is claiming that atheism is the real source of the mass violence in the world. Of course, he does a pretty poor job of it.

Let’s start with the nature of the claimed religious conflicts in the world:

Moreover, many of the conflicts that are counted as “religious wars” were not fought over religion. They were mainly fought over rival claims to territory and power. Can the wars between England and France be called religious wars because the English were Protestants and the French were Catholics? Hardly.

The same is true today. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not, at its core, a religious one. It arises out of a dispute over self-determination and land. Hamas and the extreme orthodox parties in Israel may advance theological claims – “God gave us this land” and so forth – but the conflict would remain essentially the same even without these religious motives. Ethnic rivalry, not religion, is the source of the tension in Northern Ireland and the Balkans.

This seems to be obviously wrong. Religion is the source of the territorial conflict. If there were no religious claims on the land Jews wouldn’t have moved there after WWII and Palestinians wouldn’t be so angered over Jews living amongst them in that territory. It seems religious at the very core.

What D’Souza seems to miss is that conflicts don’t have to be explicitly about religion to be the result of religion. Religion divides people, creating those opposing groups. The tensions are exacerbated by differences in religion which then manifests itself in ostensibly secular conflicts. That’s how I see it, at least. [EDIT: To be clear, I’m not saying people like Dawkins and Harris are always correct in what conflicts they deem religious or that all conflicts actually boil down to religion. I’m just saying D’Souza is pretty superficial in his treatment of the issue.]

Yet today’s atheists insist on making religion the culprit. Consider Mr. Harris’s analysis of the conflict in Sri Lanka. “While the motivations of the Tamil Tigers are not explicitly religious,” he informs us, “they are Hindus who undoubtedly believe many improbable things about the nature of life and death.” In other words, while the Tigers see themselves as combatants in a secular political struggle, Harris detects a religious motive because these people happen to be Hindu and surely there must be some underlying religious craziness that explains their fanaticism.

Harris is probably wrong here, but D’Souza is also wrong. The differences in religion between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government increase divisions and make the conflict worse (such religious differences are essentially a requirement for suicide bombing campaigns). To make matters worse, D’Souza is taking Harris out of context. That remark (which I discussed here) is a defense against those who claim you don’t have to be religious to be a suicide bomber. Harris’s point seems to be that they have religious views that enable such an action. That doesn’t mean the conflict has to be explicitly religious. The conflict could be over territory, but with the religious views of the two parties accepting suicide bombing, the conflict escalates.

One finds the same inanities in Mr. Dawkins’s work. Don’t be fooled by this rhetorical legerdemain. Dawkins and Harris cannot explain why, if Nazism was directly descended from medieval Christianity, medieval Christianity did not produce a Hitler. How can a self-proclaimed atheist ideology, advanced by Hitler as a repudiation of Christianity, be a “culmination” of 2,000 years of Christianity? Dawkins and Harris are employing a transparent sleight of hand that holds Christianity responsible for the crimes committed in its name, while exonerating secularism and atheism for the greater crimes committed in their name.

Maybe because the rise of Hitler was due to other factors in addition to anti-semitism? Like, I don’t know, a failed attempt at democracy, new techniques in propaganda, technological advances, etc?

How many times are people going to claim that Hitler was an atheist before actually noticing that he claimed he was on a mission from God? D’Souza knows that anti-semitism is largely the result of Christianity. Hitler, while not really someone you would claim was a Christian, relied on anti-semitism fomented by Christianity and the belief in some sort of divine backing of his plans. That’s not an atheist ideology. It’s not something I’d directly blame on religion, but it’s certainly has little to do with atheism.

D’Souza doesn’t talk about communism, but he implies it was done in the name of secularism. It’s really pretty obvious that it was done in the name of an ideology that was ludicrous. It relied on the idea that revolution would bring about a social transformation and lead to the workers uniting and all working together. Without everyone working together, it doesn’t work (it probably wouldn’t work otherwise, too). That obviously didn’t happen, so they tried to make it happen through force and totalitarianism. Their faith in the historical vision of Marx led them to cover up and ignore their failures. Notice that I didn’t mention atheism. Atheism is incidental to the reasons behind what we find disgusting about communism. So, it’s really D’Souza making the same mistake he chastises atheists for making earlier in the article; it’s superficial logic based on one side holding certain beliefs, even if those beliefs are not particularly important as a source of conflict.

So, D’Souza has completely failed to justify his claim that “[a]theism, not religion, is the real force behind the mass murders of history.” I’m not surprised.

Categories: Religion
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