Sam de Britto posted a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald about God and war. He’s one of those brilliant brights who intentionally mischaracterizes what most believers in God claim their God-belief constitutes. So he calls God a sky-wizard and gives up his effort to prove a point by saying, “Build your churches, mosques and temples – I’m building a bomb shelter.”
The article has some statements that might be factual, but that is disputable. What interests me is that based upon his own logic (not mine) he’s wrong:
It must be frustrating worshipping an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful being and He does nothing to smite, humiliate or deter those who do not. Violence or discrimination in God’s name thus seems to be the ultimate redundancy because surely the point of divine omnipotence is setting the chessboard just as you’d like it…Take the same stand against God [that I take] in the US and you’ll never see high public office, which means every “leader of the free world” now believes in the Sky Wizard or is so fearful of a pious backlash, they lie about it in public and toddle off to church every Sunday to complete the charade…
So, according to his presupposition, “nothing happens to humiliate or deter unbelief” he is incorrect. This is the case because he whines that atheists are persecuted and that world leaders have to pretend to believe in God to be elected.
This should have been obvious to him because on his (wrong view) of divine omnipotence, God very well could have set it up so that the leaders of the free world believe in the sky wizard, and indeed has done so. De Britto even sarcastically identifies the alleged persecution he faces , at the hands of religious fanatics in Australia, with God: “God is very much with us and he’s coming to get me…” With respect to his first premise, if these persecutors are real, then things do happen to deter unbelief.
So, if God is setting up a chess board (which I doubt) and God’s work is to be identified with what believers do without qualification (which is a stupid idea, but de Britto accepts it), then God did make the state of affairs difficult for atheists. The author is wrong on several levels since most religions really do claim, in their own holy books, that there is a right and a wrong way to do their religion. This means that one cannot attribute the works of every religious person to the deity to whom they give allegiance. There’s a heuristic in a holy book, tradition, or aphorism.
The imaginative atheist
Aside from barely rising to the level of writing a self-consistent article, the author ran into other troubles as well. He also accepts the idea that the west, in general, isn’t friendly toward atheists. He appears to have imagined a version of western civilization that is more akin to a Caliphate than any actual Western nation. But when it comes to the data available, some polls show that even atheists distrust atheists, but it still remains the case that in general Christians and non-Christian religious types are quite friendly toward atheists.
This might be because Christians were identified as atheists by the pagan roman empire. Christians who know that might feel some kinship with atheists. We understand why people worship other things, we just find said worship to be unappealing on the basis of our other commitments. It is also the case that my atheist friends, many of whom I befriended after they made fun of me and I joked back with them, eventually reveal that they make fun of religious people or start debates with them in the midst of non-argumentative conversation. In other words, they pick fights. Everybody argues with that guy, whether a Christian a libertarian, or an atheist. If you act like the weird uncle and then also act shocked by people thinking you’re a jerk, then you are the weird uncle.
The Historically Errant Atheist
The main error is obvious, but he makes more. It’s not even his identification of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Hitchens as esteemed thinkers (of then, only Hitchens stands out). He steals their hypothesis that moderate religious people somehow enable extremists (no citation?!?! Sad!):
As has been pointed out by many esteemed thinkers, this is the insidious nature of “moderate” religion. It makes it all so reasonable to respect and treasure “fantastic propositions” that can be believed without evidence and that it’s only extremists who distort the “truth”.
If the religion has a heuristic, you can tell if its followers are doing it right or wrong by checking:
- the source text (Bibles, Vedas, etc.)
- how the mainstream sects interpret said text
- what are people doing that either contradicts or comports with that interpretation.
In other words, any religion that judges its extremists according to it’s orthodoxy is, by definition, not enabling them. As an aside, atheism, as simple belief that God is not, has no orthodoxy, so it’s weird to hear atheists criticize atheists for not being atheistic correctly.
The Potentially Violent Atheist
Another problem problem is the over-all premise that because he identifies certain social ills that have a connection to God belief, that he’s found the solution to all wars: Get rid of God belief, get rid of violence. He’s not as violent about it as Sam Harris, who famously recommends preemptive violence against others based on their beliefs, but he does allude to Harris, so one wonders if he buys Harris’ argument that killing religious people for their beliefs is a good idea. Harris mentions this in his book The End of Faith:
The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.
The Historically Errant Atheist
Now, Mike Bird deals with his argument on the level of articulating what Christians actually believe or at least what their holy book articulates (some Christians do not know that the New Testament says to love your enemies).
But I’m more interested in the fact that the “religion causes wars trope” has been refuted. Vox Day refuted it by actually checking the Encyclopedia of Wars (don’t buy it, it’s pricey, several libraries have it, check worldcat.org). I have a digital copy and searched through its religion references. He is correct when he notes that the Encyclopedia of War lists as religious “123 wars in all, which sounds as it is would support the case of the New Atheists, until one recalls that these 123 wars represent only 6.98 % of all of the wars recorded in the encyclopedia” (Vox Day, The Irrational Atheist, 105). As an aside, Vox includes more wars than the authors do in the “religiously motivated wars” category.
So, are there atrocities that are apparently happening as a logical consequence of certain forms of God-belief? Yes. Or more clearly put: Are people doing evil things for which they use God-belief as a justification and warrant? Yes. But is it the case that horrible conflicts, strange evils, and injustices would end if we got rid of religious belief? No. People find lots of reasons that are disconnected from God to go to war, to cheat, to steal, to wantonly mistreat others, destroy property, and so-on.
Phillips, Charles, and Alan Axelrod. 2005. Encyclopedia of Wars. New York: Facts on File, Inc.
Vox Day. 2008, The Irrational Atheist. Benbella