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Saturday, 11 April 2009

Maverick Philosopher on the Historical Atrocities Argument

In making their case against theism many of the "new atheists" (indeed many of the old) commonly appeal to historical atrocities allegedly committed by believers in God. I was discussing this phenomena recently with Doug Geivett in the aftermath of the Craig v Hitchens debate. I cited the need for Christian apologists to rebut not only the contention that theism is false but also the contention that it is oppressive and dangerous. I proposed that someone of the calibre of Rodney Stark should address the sociological claims about the effect of religion on society to supplement the defences of its truth by scholars such as Bill Craig, Alvin Plantinga, etc. The full (ongoing) discussion can be found within the comments thread here.

Yesterday I discovered this gem on the same topic on one of my favourite blogs of all time, Bill Vallicella's Maverick Philosopher, (in fact the inspiration for MandM). I have reproduced a little below to whet your appetite and have furnished the necessary link to finish the meal. Enjoy.

Extract Taken From:
Is Religion the Problem? Why Isn't Belief As Such the Problem? The Special Pleading of Some Atheists

One of the arguments against religion in the contemporary atheist arsenal is the argument that religious beliefs fuel war and terrorism. Rather than pull quotations from such well-known authors as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, I will quote a couple of passages from one of the contributors to Philosophers Without Gods, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. His piece is entitled "Overcoming Christianity." After describing his movement from his evangelical Christian upbringing to a quietistic rejection of Christianity, Sinnott-Armstrong tells us how he became an evangelical atheist:

My quietism ended when current events taught me the dangers of religion. I had always known how religions, including Christianity, led to wars in the Middle East, Ireland, and so on. Many wars, of course, are not based on religion. Even religious wars result from non-religious forces as well. Nonetheless, it is hard to deny that many wars have been and continue to be fueled in large part by religious beliefs. It is no coincidence that terrorists are so often motivated by religion, since it is hard to get non-religious people to volunteer as suicide bombers. (76)

It is true that people holding religious beliefs have used, and are using, their religious beliefs to justify war, terrorism, and such other evils as forced conversions and inquisitions. No reasonable person can deny this. But what Sinnott-Armstrong (S-A) says above in the second sentence is that religions lead to wars. Does he really want to say that religions lead to wars? All religions? Buddhism? I understand that there are some Buddhist terrorists. But surely a professional philosopher such as S-A can see the difference between (i) Some Buddhists are terrorists and (ii) Buddhism causes war and terrorism. If a Buddhist is a terrorist, this is an accidental fact about him; there is nothing in the essence of Buddhism that enjoins terrorism. No Buddhist qua Buddhist is a terrorist. It escapes me how the doctrines, precepts and practices of Buddhism cause war, terrorism and kindred evils. Similarly for Christianity. Plenty of atrocities have been committed by people who identify themselves as Christians. But that is not to say that the characteristic doctrines, precepts and practices of Christianity cause war, terrorism and the like. It is rather the opposite: when the doctrines and precepts of Buddhism and Christianity are acted upon they tend to mitigate human savagery.

And then there is the case of Gandhi whose principle of ahimsa (no-harm) derives from his Hinduism. Hinduism as understood and practiced by him surely did not lead to war and terroism. Did he perhaps not understand the principles of his religion? So it cannot be religion as such that causes war and terrorism. The central teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity are anti-war and anti-terrorism.

So one of the mistakes that people like Sinnot-Armstrong make is that they confuse the doctrinal content of a religion with the behavior of some of the religion's adherents.
read the rest here [the comments are worth looking at too]

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, William Lane Craig and the Argument from Harm Part I


  1. Sri Lanka is a buddhist country and, in the name of buddhism, has been suppressing the minority for many years. So the notion of buddhist terrorism or a buddhist war is not that remote.

  2. I always thought this was more of an emotional argument than a logical one. Surely there is a way to turn this argument around to point out the sinfulness of man (as if we needed more confirmation of that).

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  3. Stephanie @ Faithful Follower Of ChristSunday, 12 April 2009 at 12:00:00 pm NZST

    Good article. If their argument was true or logical, then same argument could also be used against atheism. Hitler was an atheist, as was Stalin I believe.

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  4. Yes, we know this. And Vallicella admitted up front that people have done horrible things in the name of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity. He never claimed otherwise, so all you're doing is giving an example of something Vallicella already admitted occurs.

    What he said is that, while people do horrible things and attribute them to their religion, in the case of at least these 3 religions their reasoning is unsound. Their justifications for their actions fall flat in light of what their foundational religious texts actually say.

  5. Maverick would not allow comments there without logging in. I agree with his claims. I think the denial of stuff done in the name of atheism because it is really done in the name of communism is a contemptible argument. You may not wish atheism to take the blame for the deaths, but if that is the case you need to give up your claim against religion causing war. This argument is expanded in The Irrational Atheist which also shows that very few wars can even be attributed to religion anyway.

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  6. That's strange. When I comment on his blog I just comment - no log in needed.

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