Monday, June 9, 2008

Atheist Innumeracy

In recent years, many atheist books have hit the bestseller lists. Christopher Hitchens’ god is Not Great (no, “god” is not supposed to be capitalized), Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and Sam Harris’ The End of Faith have all been recent bestsellers. Generally, reaction in the press has been quite favorable, and even religious believers have generally treated these books with respect.

One the key points that these authors make is the assertion that religion is the root cause of most of history’s wars and persecutions. Christopher Hitchens has written that “fascism is practically another word for Catholicism.” Richard Dawkins believes that religion is “lethally dangerous nonsense.” It is very common to see the accusation leveled that organized religion is responsible for most of history’s wars and persecutions; that the number of people killed because of religion dwarfs any other cause.

That charge is totally absurd. Religious conflict accounts for only a tiny percentage of history’s atrocities. Consider this Wikipedia list of wars and massacres throughout the course of human history. Being Wikipedia, the list is probably not exhaustive, but it should give a rough estimate of the damage caused by religion.

Adding up the lower estimates of the people killed in humanity’s more recent wars (the list seems to begin around the thirteenth century), the rough total comes out at around 190 million. Religious wars account for 28 million of those dead. (Although I used a pretty liberal interpretation of “religious war,” so the number is probably higher than it should be). That comes out to around 15%. This means that around fifteen percent of the world’s historical strife can be traced (however tenuously) back to religion—and 85% can’t.

But many atheists claim that religion’s greatest evil lies in its ability to make ordinary, day-to-day life miserable for those unlucky enough to fall into its power. So perhaps a list of genocides would be the place to look for the true measure of religions depravity.

The list mentioned above also has a (incomplete, as before) list of notable genocides. This list climbs to 75 million. Eight million were religiously motivated, which means that in this case, about ten percent of genocides can be traced back to religion. This number is tiny—barely statistically significant.

It may be possible to tack on a few more deaths to religion (medieval witch hunts were not mentioned), but not many more. Religious belief is simply not to blame for many mass murders.

Most atheists dodge this fact by attempting to blame religion for the deaths caused by the mostly atheistic totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, such as Mao’s China, Stalin’s Russia, or Hitler’s Germany. The reasoning behind this line of thought is that since all these ideologies rested on a theory that could not be questioned or disobeyed, they all count as religion, which atheists see as sharing the same characteristic. (Even though religious believers—even those of the same faith—rarely agree on philosophical matters). This argument is valid, up to a point: most totalitarianism does rest on a set of beliefs that, by virtue of their presumed infallibility, do become a secular religion. (This can be seen clearly in the global warming movement).

But totalitarianism is a secular religion. It places its faith in man, not God, and sets its sights on building a Heaven on Earth rather than during the afterlife, as theistic religions do. The mental processes required to profess both totalitarianism and religion are much the same—but the beliefs themselves are literally linear opposites.

Clearly, religion bears absolutely no responsibility for the vast majority of human suffering. It’s not hard to realize this—a quick look at history should suffice to prove it to any fair-minded person. Atheists consider themselves slaves to the scientific method, but the scientific method involves accepting all the information available, not just that which is favorable to your preferred side. This attack is either the product of bad faith or inexcusable ignorance—and atheists should stop using it.

16 Comments:

At June 9, 2008 at 6:25 PM , Blogger Beth said...

I also question many groups who do kill in the name of their "god" as just an excuse, and not a real belief that they are being called to kill by a higher power. So they can shift the blame away from themselves, or justify their wrongful actions.

 
At June 9, 2008 at 8:05 PM , Blogger Daniel Ruwe said...

Good point, Beth. Some of the wars that were started by "religious leaders" were pretty obviously just attempts to gain political power. I counted them as religious deaths to give the atheist side every benefit of the doubt, but I think the real number is much lower.

 
At June 10, 2008 at 12:12 PM , Blogger Name: Soapboxgod said...

"Clearly, religion bears absolutely no responsibility for the vast majority of human suffering."

That is a bold statement if ever I heard one; a bold statement which I find to be undeniably false.

This is the sole reason why I, as a Catholic, quit going to church. Does not the Catholic church and a great many other Christian religions profess false atruism at every turn?

This notion that man on earth is something of a sin... They undermine his will and his accomplishments as they preach of a grand perfection. They infer that man must live for the sake of others and give freely as he serves as his brother's keeper.

I heard it over and over again. I wish I could say it was merely in the confines of my respective church. Unfortunately, it was not.

And, for your benefit Daniel, I won't even apply your statement to the unfortunate abuses which occured within the Catholic church.

 
At June 10, 2008 at 1:07 PM , Blogger Daniel Ruwe said...

"This notion that man on earth is something of a sin... They undermine his will and his accomplishments as they preach of a grand perfection. They infer that man must live for the sake of others and give freely as he serves as his brother's keeper."
You seem to have bought into Ayn Rand's ideas on religion. Most religions (I think—I know mine does) teach that man is fundamentally good, but has an intense attraction to evil, which I think is pretty clear—look at the Holocaust (which, by the way, was not religiously motivated), or 9/11 (which was), or the atrocities taking place in Zimbabwe.
As really, are our accomplishments really that impressive? Has there really ever been a society that could really be called moral? Ayn Rand seems to think that the first hundred years the United States were a kind of Golden Age—yeah, the same years that featured slavery, widespread poverty (caused in part by the actions of business leaders), a repression of woman and minorities.
Living for the sake of others doesn’t really sound attractive—but I would say that it beats Randian selfishness. Anybody looking for material happiness on earth will probably be disappointed—for one thing, only the small proportion of people living in First World countries have a real shot at material wealth. And even among the people you know, how many can be said to be truly content? And are they those think first of themselves, or the ones who are most altruistic? Self-interest is a wonderful way to run an economy—and a terrible way to run your life.
And the whole Church-doesn’t-have-moral-authority-because-of-actions-of-its-members is a weak argument. To begin with, it’s an ad hominen attack, and anyway, most priests are innocent of any crimes.

 
At June 10, 2008 at 1:27 PM , Blogger Name: Soapboxgod said...

For the record, I haven't "bought into" Rand's musings on the subject. Her musings merely reflect what I came to find on my own.

 
At June 10, 2008 at 2:28 PM , Blogger Daniel Ruwe said...

"For the record, I haven't "bought into" Rand's musings on the subject. Her musings merely reflect what I came to find on my own."
Fair point. I should have said "agree with".

 
At June 10, 2008 at 3:56 PM , Blogger Beth said...

I don't find that the Catholic Church tries to tell us to live for the sake of others, but they do teach to be charitable to others in need. They teach us to give out of love, not out of force. And I also do not get the impression that the Catholic Church teaches that man is a sin in and of himself, but that we are created in God's own image, and are loved unconditionally by God; therefore we are called to try to treat others with the same love and respect, because others are also an image of God. We are not perfect and do sin, but that does not make us evil, just human.

 
At June 10, 2008 at 5:48 PM , Blogger Daniel Ruwe said...

I basically agree, Beth, but I would point out that according to Catholic philosophy, there are obligations that everyone owes each other. For example, employers MUST pay workers a just wage, even if the market will bear less.

 
At June 11, 2008 at 7:22 PM , OpenID lemurking said...

One thing I've long been amused by, is the vehement lather that atheists get in over something they do not even believe in.

Religion with a capital "R" is the worst thing to happen to humanity. Take Christianity for example - it has been completely turned on it's head and presumes that man should be allowed to judge and call the shots. As soon as you start discussing how someone else's behavior is sin, you've missed the boat. Rather, discuss your own. By pointing fingers and telling others of their faults we do nothing other than to drive people away and incite ever deeper hatred.

Religion with the lower case "r" is what we ought to have but rarely succeed because we keep tending to make the church conform to our desires.

(and yes, I am a Christian - just one oh so tired of people exercising judgment of others over acceptance and compassion)

 
At June 12, 2008 at 6:58 AM , Blogger Name: Soapboxgod said...

"...according to Catholic philosophy, there are obligations that everyone owes each other. For example, employers MUST pay workers a just wage, even if the market will bear less."

A) Who deems what is just??; and

B) Doesn't this infer that the individual has not the clarity or fortitude to assert a wage for which they will labor??

This is precisely why when I go to a coffee shop and see that their coffee is "Fair Trade" coffee I can't help but be completely perplexed.

Who would deem what is "Fair"??

It ought to be labeled as "Free Trade".

If I think my labor in picking the beans is worth more than you're offering, then I don't sell to you. I sell to someone who will pay the asking price. If no-one comes forth with a higher price I can't very well sit on the coffee beans and make no money can I?? It is then that market forces are at work which cause me to lower my price.

 
At June 12, 2008 at 9:49 AM , Blogger Daniel Ruwe said...

"If I think my labor in picking the beans is worth more than you're offering, then I don't sell to you. I sell to someone who will pay the asking price. If no-one comes forth with a higher price I can't very well sit on the coffee beans and make no money can I?? It is then that market forces are at work which cause me to lower my price."
I'm not sure it works that way. In the grapes of Wrath, the owners can pay the Okies (people traveling to find opportunity, for those who haven't read the book) as little as they want, since the options are work for almost nothing or starve and get replaced by someone else who is equally desparate. In Thailand and like countries, owners can get labor so cheap that it is effectively slave labor, since there is no other option for many of these people. If one of those people held out for a higher wage, they would simply be replaced.

Producers can usually find ways to pay workers wages that are unjust by almost any standard. They have a moral obligation (IMO) not too.

 
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