How to stop sucking at non-belief (Part 4)

Religion causes more wars than any other factor. Right?

It’s pretty hardy received wisdom amongst non-believers that religion is a violent, oppressive, terrifying force that causes nothing but harm to society.

Is this actually true? And I don’t mean in a “I can dig up at least one example” type of true (that’s trivial, just look up the number of infants who have died while their parents prayed over them rather than taking them to a hospital) I mean actually statistically true. Is it such a cause that can be reliably and repeatedly demonstrated? Is it a cause that tangibly alters the course of human events?

And I mean really caused by religion. As in, one leader got a message from God to declare war and everyone within that religion rose up to join them. Or the war was started by one religious group specifically to eradicate another religious group. Most importantly, though, if you want to say religion is The Cause (capital letters and all), then that war would have to  be impossible without religion. After all, religion could be a confounding variable. There’s the story that George Bush was “inspired” to invade Iraq by God, but that alone would never have passed under the US political system. The political machinations for a war in Iraq were brewing for decades, it wasn’t declared on a whim because of religion – in fact, even taking the “God told me so” message at face value it’s not religion, as in the abstract social phenomenon, that caused the war, but lone single beliefs of an individual. In that respect it’s no different to any other perfectly secular totalitarian declaration of war!

Back in the dark days of only a few years ago, some bright sparks had this great idea to make information available on this thing that they called “The Inter Net”. So looking up this sort of thing has become remarkably easy – if you can broadcast your opinion on the internet, there is no legitimate excuse for you being unable to use it to gain some facts. And so, with that back-hander out of my system, let’s take a look at the list of ongoing military conflicts.

Now, this is just the ongoing ones, but it’s good enough for our purposes (see below). The first thing you would notice looking at the Wikipedia list would be the two categories of >1,000 and <1,000 deaths per year (2013) – conflicts escalate and trail off, ebbing and flowing as they progress whether they’re resolved or not. So the best thing to do with the list is to order them by cumulative casualties. This gives you a better overall view of what’s happened in the last 50 years or so.

You then see, quite readily, the top ongoing conflicts in terms of total deaths caused by them. This is pretty much the established metric for how bloody a war is, or how “bad” it was. These are:

Once you get below that, you’re into the long tail, but these are the ones that dominate the entire list dramatically and take up the lions share of death and destruction. Anyone see religion in there? Anyone? Nope, me neither. They’re almost all exclusively politically-motivated civil wars. State-to-state invasions are practically unheard of in the grand scheme of things! And notably, one of the top ones for deaths this year alone is the drug war in Mexico.

You have to dig through that list of ongoing wars quite thoroughly to find a religious basis for the listed conflict. There’s the Nigerian Sharia conflict, which fits the bill pretty well. There’s the Lord’s Resistance Army, which despite being political I’ll just about accept as religiously motivated because Kony thinks he’s some spiritual medium in contact with God and wishes to install a theocracy (he has many things in common with Ann Coulter and Sarah Palin, it seems). There’s the Islamic insurgency in the Philippines, which is being fought by Jihadists… and that’s about it, really. The Israel-Palestine thing is really more about territory and occupation, rather than religion. Northern Ireland is about separatism and independence, and it’s only a combination of religion tradition dating back to the reformation that means that it’s vaguely Protestant on one side and Catholics on the other. To say that those are about religion would be like saying the second world war motivated by tensions between blonde haired and brown haired people because Hitler liked the Aryan image.

That’s ongoing current wars and civil conflicts. What about the other biggies from the 20th century? The first world war, the second world war, Vietnam… well, if you think those have anything to do with religion you need to and read a fucking history book. Right. Fucking. Now.

“Ah!” says favourite Straw Man sparing partner, “but what about the Crusades, and the Inquisition?”

Well, my darling dearest voice-in-my-head, what of them? What about them? No, really. What of it? Are you seriously considering judging modern religion by the standards of how it operated centuries ago? Are you seriously saying we should take someone going along to a church to sing a hymn or two on a Sunday, and judge them based only on the whims of Pope Urban II 1,000 years ago? Seriously, it’s a 1,000 years ago. If we were living in a fantasy novel this would have been called “The Second Age” or the “Epoch of Elves” or something like that. That’s why I opened this with the list of ongoing conflicts (well, here’s the list of bloodiest wars ever, again, note the dearth of religious motivation).

But let’s take that a bit further. Though I hasten to add that I’m not qualified to talk about this time period, I’ll take some informed stabs at it. What about the political situation of 1,000 years ago? When most of Europe was effectively a theocracy, the distinction between a religious and political cause was practically non-existent. There was no real separation of Church and State. Just like with George W. Bush, a leader didn’t have to be told by God, they just needed the political reason to and then use God as a post-facto justification of it.

So, in conclusion of this rant-in-miniature, stop it. Just stop it. Please just fucking stop it already. Right? Please? Stop simplifying global socio-political turmoil into a case of who has the best God, because that’s not even wrong.

7 thoughts on “How to stop sucking at non-belief (Part 4)

  1. As soon as theists stop saying that the mass killings of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot could not have occurred without Atheism.

    Reply
    • I assume by “theists” you mean all of them, rather than just the smaller sub-section of fundie preachers such as Ray Comfort. But either way, surely a tit-for-tat approach to making baseless accusations isn’t exactly in the best interests of reason.

      Reply
  2. Religion is a lever of power. Those who have it will use it just as they use political position or wealth or anything else they have.

    Reply
  3. I think it would be intellectually impermissible to expand the definition of “religion” to include what you mention. Words must mean what they mean (even as they change over time), and we should use words clearly and precisely.

    I would agree, however, that “ideology,” which is perhaps the word you could use instead of expanding the definition of religion, is as dangerous as you suggest.

    Reply
    • Well, if I expand the definition of “toxin” to include any substance that will kill me if I consume it in quantities greater than any arbitrary overdose level, then it’s quite clear that water is toxic, so I should avoid drinking water. Because it’s toxic.

      Reply
  4. If you expand the definition of religion to include groups of people who adhere to a principle, etc, without any reasonable justification and independent thinking, it’s readily apparent religion is dangerous. And the largest opponent to critical thinking. With this definition, religions can include gangs, the workplace, sports fans, etc. Formal organized religious organisations places faith or the antithesis of critical thinking, as the highest form of virtue, and is therefore, the greatest inhibitor for critical thinking to become an acceptable norm throughout nearly all social groups.

    Reply
    • But then it’s not “religion” as people commonly use it, and further, you’ve expanded it so far that it includes everything. Then the term becomes meaningless because you can’t use it to narrow anything down with any sort of precisions.

      Instead, you want to focus on the actual properties of groups you’re talking about. Properties such as whether leaders are unquestionable, or whether out-groups are demonised purely to make the in-group feel superior. Once you’ve done that, there’s no need to play about with the definition of “religion” at all.

      Reply

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