Thursday, September 04, 2014

Irreligion and violence

I'm going to comment on Keith Parsons' alarmist screed:

1) When someone challenges your religion, they appear to denigrate your customs, traditions, community, history, and your whole way of living. It feels like they are being ethnocentric and condescending. If someone insults your religion, it can feel like they are insulting your family, and, in a sense, they are. The Apostle Paul spoke of fellow believers as his brothers and sisters in Christ, and the family metaphor is apt. A perceived insult to one’s biological or religious family can provoke a violent response.

This assumes that, as a matter of fact, Christians take an attack on Christian theology as personally as they take an attack on one's own mother. Where's the empirical evidence that, in fact, most Christians make the same emotional connection that Parsons is laboring to make?  

2) Challenging religion can appear subversive, an attempt to dissolve the glue of society and sow discord. The low will be incited to indulge their envy of the high, and the high will be left with no means of preserving their position except by brutal repression. If you take away their pie in the sky, the lowly will fight to get it now by any means necessary, and the high will fight to hold on by any means necessary.

Once again, that's just armchair psychology. In the US, atheists have been denigrating Christianity for a very long time. Take Madalyn Murray O'Hair, Robert Ingersoll, or H. L. Mencken–to name a few. Where's the empirical evidence that they were "brutally repressed"? 

3) Anyone who questions your religion seems to be attempting to relegate you to insignificance. Nobody likes to be made to feel that they do not matter. If your religion is what gives you a sense of meaning in life, then, you will surely bitterly resent anyone who seemingly wants to deny you that comfort.

Unless we respect them, why would we respect their opinion of us? What makes Parsons suppose Christian self-esteem is contingent on the approval of atheists? 

4) Unfortunately, biases are all too often among the beliefs that religion reinforces. Among the comforts that religion offers is the reassurance that God hates the same people you do. Indeed, if God hates, say, liberals, feminists, evolutionists, environmentalists, gays, lesbians, atheists, Democrats, and smarty-pants college professors, then you have a duty to hate them too. I have on my office door a hilarious picture of a horrid Phyllis Schlafly-type woman saying “God told me to hate you.” Religion did not create hatred, but it can make is so much easier and more fun to hate. It makes it easier and more fun by combining the pleasure of hating with the pleasure of self-righteousness.

If Phyllis Schlafly is the worst thing he has to worry about, he doesn't have much to worry about. Does she have a history of fomenting violence against atheists? 
Ironically, Parsons is a stellar example of a self-righteous atheist who despises Christians. 
5) As with every topic, St. Thomas Aquinas was impeccably logical when discussing heresy. In the 13th Century murderers were always and everywhere put to death. Yet, notes Aquinas, the murderer only destroys the body. The heretic does not destroy merely the mortal body, but leads the immortal soul into perdition. The heretic is therefore far more dangerous and despicable than the murderer, and far more worthy of being punished by death. If you accept Aquinas’s premises, this conclusion is inescapable. If eternal punishment is the consequence of departing from true belief, then must we not oppose the spread of false doctrine by any and all means? If you accept this conclusion, the stake and the rack cannot be far behind.

Of course, medieval Catholicism was very authoritarian. Unquestioning submission to your religious superiors. 

By contrast, Protestant theology accentuates the necessity of personal conviction. External conformity is no substitute for genuine faith. Coercion is not persuasion. 

Religion is the high-octane fuel of ideologies. It touches deep things, like personal and collective identity, fears and hopes, and a fundamental sense of worth and security. Carelessly or maliciously handled, religion can be explosive. A Bible or Koran in the wrong hands has done, and is doing, vast amounts of harm. I would recommend putting a warning label on every Bible sold: "Warning: Use with extreme caution. Do not take literally. Do not take with self-righteousness. Admits of very different interpretations. Misuse can result in symptoms including but not restricted to genocide, persecution, crusade, intolerance, obscurantism, sexism, homophobia, and racism."

i) One could just as well say we should put a warning label on The Communist Manifesto. Consider the humanitarian devastation that wrought. 

ii) Parsons also assumes, without benefit of argument, that "persecution, intolerance, homophobia" &c. are bad consequences of religion. But many atheists espouse moral skepticism, moral relativism, or moral nihilism. So he needs to explain the secular basis for his value judgments. 

Thanks for the comments and clarification, but I think that you are still underplaying the particular potential of religion to incite violence. Of course, John Locke, in "A Letter Concerning Toleration" makes the same point as Lactantius: Force can only make people into hypocrites who say the right things to avoid harm while sill disbelieving. True religious commitment requires an unforced assent.Fine, but I still have to wonder whether the "no coercion" policy is really grounded in principle or whether it is based on an empirical claim that, as a matter of fact, force does not work. As a matter of fact, it might. The most terrifying sentence in Orwell's 1984 is the final one: "He loved Big Brother." The point was that torture, systematically and "scientifically" applied could not only bring about external assent, but change perception. If you are tortured severely enough, Orwell implied, you may be able actually to think that 2 + 2 = 5. Suppose Orwell is right and it is discovered that belief can be coerced. What would the Christian response be?So long as eternal destiny hinges upon a decision--the decision whether or not to accept Christian salvation--just how far can one go in good conscience to make sure that someone makes the "right" decision? If not outright violence, how about extreme persuasion, using all the tools of propaganda and manipulation so artfully developed by advertisers and politicians? We live in an environment where, whatever you do, you can hardly escape advertising. If in doubt, check the distracting and moronic ads running right now on this site. Why not 24/7 hard-sell proselytizing? I understand that there is something now called "The Good News Movement" that aims at evangelizing elementary-school children? Is this OK? Doesn't the logic of Christian theism imply that if one child is saved from eternal perdition, then hard-core propagandizing of kids is OK?

Committed atheists think society has a huge stake in the success or failure of atheism to inform social policy. They think Christian theology poses a clear and present danger to human flourishing or the very survival of the human race: 

When belief in ancient myths joins with other negative forces in our society, they hinder the world from advancing scientifically, economically, and socially at a time when a rapid advancement in these areas is absolutely essential for the survival of humanity. We now may be only about a generation or two away from the catastrophic problems predicted to result from global warming, pollution, and overpopulation. Our children and grandchildren could be faced with flooded coastal areas, severe climatic changes, epidemics caused by overcrowding, and increased starvation for much of humanity. Such disasters would generate worldwide conflict on a scale that is likely to exceed that of the great twentieth-century wars, possibly with nuclear weapons in the hands of unstable nations and terrorist groups.
By Parsons' own logic, atheists have an incentive to suppress Christianity by any means necessary. 


  1. Plus la change, plus la meme chose. Atheists so often want to paint the consequences of religion in general and Christianity in particular as somehow 'bad', while simultaneously disallowing any actual grounds for holding anything as 'bad'. When otherwise intelligent folk engage in such delusions it makes the reality of Romans-1-level denial of God crystal clear.

  2. He seems confused about a number of things.

    For instance he's worried about overpopulation despite the fact the world has been in demographic winter a few decades now.

    He's also worried about religion's effect re "The low will be incited to indulge their envy of the high", and also that religion will cause hatred of liberals and Democrats. But how can he be against the former and for the latter? Isn't he aware that the basis for liberalism in general and the Democrats in particular is to incite envy between various demographic groups? Why should anyone trust any of his reasoning after such a slovenly display?