On the Myth of Religious Violence

Posted on 05/15/11 145 Comments

Yesterday I attended a lecture by scholar William Cavanaugh from DePaul University speaking on the topic of his recent book The Myth of Religious Violence. Cavanaugh did an outstanding job. He was witty, urbane, and argued forcefully for a thesis of monumental importance. I commend the book to you. While I haven’t read it, I’ve read a couple of his other books and now having heard him articulate this book’s argument, I have confidence that you will not be disappointed.

So what is the argument? Well here are some of my musings and reflections thirty six hours on from the lecture.

First, the concept of “religion” as it now exists is a modern one. There was no such thing in the ancient world. For example, religio in ancient Rome had more to do with your social role(s) in society and obligations to your neighbor (broadly construed) than in feast days and holy books. Cavanaugh spent a bit of time articulating the point with the case of India. Prior to the 1830s in India there were Hindus but there was no such thing as “Hinduism”. That idea of a reified “religion” was a creation of the colonizers. Once this identification had been made, Indian / Hindu identity could be marginalized with a simple binary opposition: all that is Hindu religion is bad while all that is British (from tinned meats to tinned snuff) is good.

The same thing has happened in the West over the last two centuries, and is especially visible in recent years with the vocal new atheists. They constantly speak against “religion” over-against what they are (i.e. “non-religious”). But what is religion? This is one of the many Achilles’ heels of this picture of the world, for there is no adequate definition of religion. It is said that religion has “gods”, a stipulation that is difficult to reconcile with most forms of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. But then if that arbitrary stipulation is dropped to accommodate these other “religions” then suddenly a number of other things can be classified as religions as well such as nationalism, communism, naturalism, and consumerism. The modern purveyor of this indoctrinational binary opposition (religious vs. non-religious) is thus left lurching between various stipulations of what is religious always choosing whatever will best suit his or her purposes of socially marginalizing those he/she has deemed “religious”.

This is where things get especially disturbing because these progressive denizens of the enlightened West with their secular “non-religious” values then offer defenses of the repression of those deemed religious because they are dangerous due to their fundamental irrationality and intolerance. Cavanaugh noted some examples of repressive rhetoric in Hitchens and Harris, including the latter’s defense of a possible nuclear first strike against the Muslim world.

But I have another truly reprehensible example which is only softened by the richness of its irony. In 1997 secularist Nicholas Humphrey delivered the annual UK Amnesty International Lectureship called “What Shall We Tell the Children” in which he laid out the case for suppressing the rights of “religious” parents to raise their children in their religion. He writes: “we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible, or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children’s teeth out or lock them in a dungeon.” In other words, Humphrey is arguing that “religious” parents (again, not sure what that means) should be prevented from teaching their most fundamental beliefs to their children. And if that requires removing the children from the home or locking up the parents then so be it.

And this garbage was preached in the name of Amnesty International? I guess human rights don’t extend to the “religious” after all. 

What bothers me is how these insidious, indoctrinational binary oppositions, and the deep antipathy that often goes with them, continue to be so pervasive among self-described “secularists”, “atheists”, “agnostics” “naturalists,” and “humanists”. It even happens continually at my very own little blog. Now I must say the regular atheist (et. al) readers of this blog (or at least those who also post regularly) are by and large a delightful group. It seems to me that there has been a natural self-selection process in which the most bitter, irascible and intolerable voices have moved on, leaving behind generous and level-headed people. But that actually make the continued presence of these binary oppositions in such a likeable group all the more disturbing.

Consider that in the blog today AcesLucky wrote about belief in petitionary prayer as follows: “It’s not meant to be true, it’s meant to be faith.”

I have no idea what this is really supposed to mean. But the case is an interesting one because the “faith vs. reason” binary opposition works just the same way as the “religion vs. non-religion” one: It serves to marginalize whoever is deemed as having “faith” or “religion”. Never mind that I have demonstrated countless times that every truth claim depends on assumptions which are, for all intents and purposes, faith. Never mind that any attempt to eliminate “faith” of this kind from reasoning would result in an irrational extreme skepticism. All these arguments are simply ignored as the “faith” vs. “reason” dichotomy is mindlessly repeated, in this case complemented with the further jab that “religious” people actually are not interested in their beliefs being true! (That is the “faith against reason and truth” canard. Folks, when Mark Twain defined faith as “believin’ what you know ain’t true”, he was joking. But today it seems many people take him seriously.)

The Atheist Missionary agreed with AcesLucky’s bizarre statement and then added “Religious faith helps people cope with what, for many, would be existential nihilism.” Right. It’s all just a coping mechanism. (TAM then goes on to note that his coping mechanism is looking at art.) But I’d still like to know what “religious faith” is. Does The Atheist Missionary have a definition that avoids the problems noted above, i.e. one that includes all those non-monotheistic religions but excludes nationalism, naturalism, communism and the rest? If not, maybe he should stop repeating such vacuous binary oppositions.

What most distresses me about the whole thing, from Sam Harris’ staggering defense of nuclear first strikes against Muslims to my own readers’ perpetuating of mindless binary oppositions, is that they all serve as a threat to the very open society that most of these self-described secularists claim is worth defending. Now that too is ironic, but in a very sad way. 

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  • Grady

    I’ll tell you what is NOT a Myth…Atheist Violence.

    On a side note, Randall, did you know that your “friend” John Loftus is calling your work Bullsh-t over on his blog today.

    And his followers are jumping on it.

    Why is it your are collaborating on a book with this guy again?

    And I do mean COLLABORATING.

    • randal

      Yeah, you should see what my enemies are saying about me!

      I did see that and I breezed through the comments. That’s an example of why I don’t bother much with “Debunking Christianity” because John has all these uneducated barbarians constantly dropping ad hominems on anybody not part of their in group. I don’t know how many times I’ve read the following comment on his site: “Geez, that guy’s a professor? He’s an idiut!” [sic]

      I’m not sure why you have scary caps on collaborating. After all, the book is also combat.

    • randal

      I should add the irony in the fact that every one of the comments on John’s site from atheists is heaping abuse on me for offering a subversive defense of atheists. Go figure. I guess it is like the dog drowning in the river who tries to bite its rescuer.

      • Brad Haggard

        I just noticed that today! I almost broke my personal vow not to comment there any more to let them know that you were subverting that narrative!

    • Jerry Rivard

      Grady, what is Atheist Violence?

      • randal

        I’ll await Grady’s reply too. But in the meantime, I think Nicholas Humphrey’s Amnesty International speech qualifies as hate speech, and that’s bad enough.

        • Jerry Rivard

          I read most of Humphrey’s speech, and while I’m not sure whether I’d classify it as hate speech (nor am I particularly interested in going down the rabbit hole of defining that term), I do find his proposal frightening, and yes, ironic that such a thing would come out of Amnesty International. But what does it have to do with atheism? And are you saying that hate speech is as bad as violence?

          • randal

            Humphrey’s speech has nothing to do with atheism per se. Rather, it is an example of the intolerance of secularists who create this bogeyman called “religion” which is irrational and intolerant and thus must be suppressed. Physical violence and repression of others is the product of this kind of speech whether it comes from Humphrey or Dawkins who argues that “religion” (whatever the hell that is) is a “mind virus”.

      • Grady

        Violence carried out by atheists because of their atheism.

        Since Sam Harris is popular with you guys, I will give you one of my favorite quotes of his…

        “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may be eithical to kill people for believing them”. Harris, TEOF, pages 52-53

        Get it? Kill People for their Dangerous Beliefs. Beliefs! And who determines what is Dangerous? The Atheist, because, as they are always telling us, they are so much more intelligent and moral than common believers.

        In the case of Harris, it is religion…and don’t try and sell me the line that atheists don’t kill because of their atheism. My grandparents experienced atheist violence in the country they got out of, and the Nobel Prize winner Solzhenitsyn proved beyond reasonable doubt that atheists killed believers BECAUSE of their atheism in The Gulag Archipelago Series, Three Volumes.

        • randal

          Christopher Hitchens addresses the issue of atheist violence as it is found in communism. He simply declares that such violence had nothing to do with atheism per se. I suppose if you begin with faith in the truth of whatever Hitchens says you might believe that.

        • beetle

          Randal and Grady: It is dishonest to conflate speech (or writing) with violence, unless you have evidence of said speech inciting actual violence. Got any?

          @Grady: You are quoting Harris out of context. He is describing the implications from certain religious beliefs! The full context and description is contained on the same web page I used to debunk Randall. Look for My discussion of killing people “for what they believe” (pages 52-53 of The End of Faith) about three quarters the way down.

          • randal

            Beetle, it is very unwise of you to impute charges of dishonesty to people unless you have evidence that they are attempting to mislead others. It is much more defensible to say that they are wrong.

            Your criterion (e.g. one must have instances of actual violence caused by the statement) is a faulty one. If Tom says of his ex-girlfriend “Somebody should kill that whore” I don’t need to wait for somebody to act on Tom’s statement to count his statement violence-inducing.

            Why don’t you try this. Start making speeches about how the president should be assassinated. And when the FBI arrest you, you can try out your defense on them.

          • Grady

            Nothings out of context, Beetleboy.

            Harris says it may be ethical to kill people for their BELIEFS.

            If they are dangerous.

            Sure, he qualifies it, but SO WHAT? Who determines what is dangerous enough to qualify for execution? The Atheist, that’s who.

            Moreover, you know know it. Isn’t it how amazing how much violence Harris finds excuses for?

            Dangerous Beliefs. The use of Nuclear weapons. Even torture.

            And I am confindent that you will rationalize it away.

            • beetle

              Have you read that web page?

  • Beetle

    Wow. This nutter Godwins on his front cover!

    > the latter’s [Harris] defense of a possible nuclear first strike against the Muslim world.

    Have you actually read Harris? If so, why do you quote Cavanaugh rather than calling him out on lies?
    My position on preemptive nuclear war

    • randal

      Yes I have read Harris. Have you read Cavanaugh? Have you heard him speak? Of course not.

      I’m not sure what your problem is. After all, in the passage Harris quotes in the link you provided (which is the same passage Cavanaugh quoted verbatim in his lecture) HARRIS DEFENDS THE POSSIBILITY OF A PREEMPTIVE NUCLEAR STRIKE AGAINST A MUSLIM NATION BASED ON THE ALLEGATION THAT THEY ARE INHERENTLY INTOLERANT AND IRRATIONAL. And that’s precisely WHAT I SAID. So what are the “lies” to which you’re referring?

      Sadly, you’re providing another example of the very problem this post laments. Now why don’t you move on to some of the core substance of the post instead of trying to be Sam Harris’ lapdog?

      • Beetle

        > Yes I have read Harris.

        Okay, so are saying that you read him so casually, that you missed the bit, until now, where he justified a nuclear first strikes against Muslims?

        > Why don’t you move on to some of the core substance of the post?

        I think I can be forgiven if I find your straw men too distracting to go digging through the rest of your post for substance!

        Harris writes “this [nuclear first strike] would be an unthinkable crime” and “an unconscionable act”. At best, yours (and Cavanaugh’s) paraphrase is nothing but blatant dishonesty.

        As TAM requests, please do explain exactly that with which you disagree. Please cite a full sentence (more if you like) of Harris’, not another mischaracterization.

        • randal

          “Harris writes “this [nuclear first strike] would be an unthinkable crime” and “an unconscionable act”. At best, yours (and Cavanaugh’s) paraphrase is nothing but blatant dishonesty.”

          Uh Beetle, those ‘qualifications’ come in the midst of an entire passage that is JUSTIFYING nuclear first strike. It’s like if I said “I really hate kicking the crap out of you, but here goes!”

          “As TAM requests, please do explain exactly that with which you disagree.”

          Harris begins by noting that cold war works as a deterrence only if both sides wish to avoid annihilation. But some Muslims don’t. And so if those Muslims ever get control of a state with nuclear capability the only way to protect our peace-loving state may be a nuclear first strike against them.

          Beetle, that is a token example of a common type of rhetoric that is found throughout history which dehumanizes “the enemy” as irrational and wholly malevolent as a means to lay the conditions for annihilating that enemy if and when we so choose. In most cases enlightened secularists would call it out as the dangerous bullshit it is. They know the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” and Sting’s “Russians” very well. But because they’ve bought into these dangerous binary oppositions they can’t see how inconsistent the justification of violence against their “religious” enemeis is with their own convictions.

          Now could you please address the main argument of the post before I call you Harris’ lapdog again? (Oops.)

          • beetle

            Harris begins by noting that cold war works as a deterrence only if both sides wish to avoid annihilation. But some Muslims don’t.

            Okay, two sentences worth of paraphrase that are fair! Do you disagree with either of the above sentences?

            And so if those Muslims ever get control of a state with nuclear capability the only way…

            Ah, finally you acknowledge that Harris is talking about the specter of a nuclear armed Islamic fundamentalist theocracy, and not Muslims more generally as you have strongly implied until now. The part I emphasized is your own invention.

            Could you please address the main argument of the post?

            Sorry, I was left with the impression that misrepresenting the positions of atheists was the main point you were making. If I was so wrong about that, I can’t help but thing that you hardly would have been compelled TO SHOUT IN ALL CAPS and you would have humbly apologized for misrepresenting Harris as soon as it was pointed out to you.

            • randal

              Can you please define what you mean by religion now?

              • Beetle

                If you want your usual correspondents to focus on your main points, then don’t lob prosaic bombs!

                • randal

                  This blog often feels like a dysfunctional family arguing around the Thanksgiving table.

  • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

    I will reply to the substance of this post later. In the interim, I am grateful to Beetle for posting the link to Harris’ statement above and look forward to Randal explaning how he in any way disagrees with it. Has he even read The End of Faith?

    • randal

      How could you not disagree with it? This is a reprehensible piece of rhetoric in which this individual is laying the groundwork for creating the moral framework to justify a first nuclear strike against an entire nation. That’s not in my moral lexicon and I’m shocked and disappointed to discover that it is in yours.

  • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

    Sorry to disappoint you. Get in line (be forewarned, it’s a long one).

    Harris prefaces his comments with the following: the beliefs of Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence. There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. A cold war requires that the parties be mutually deterred by the threat of death. Notions of martyrdom and jihad run roughshod over the logic that allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to pass half a century perched, more or less stably, on the brink of Armageddon. What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? [my emphasis]

    Harris’ opinion must be considered in light of the sentence I have bolded. You can disagree with the premise that an Islamist regime would not be deterred by the threat of death but, if you grant the premise, it is hard to disagree with the conclusion. I will grant you that the rhetoric is unhelpful at a time where Iran is likely close to developing a first strike capability (I have no cite for this last comment and probably should research the issue of Iran’s current nuclear capability further).

    Harris’ comments regarding a first nuclear strike were clearly made in the context of dealing with a certain threat from a country hell bent on hitting us first. If Randal refuses to hit the red button to save his family while chanting “ahimsa”, he needn’t worry because I would step in and do it.

    As far as my personal opinions are concerned, I view global nuclear proliferation (and, to a lesser extent, catastrophic nuclear terrorism) to be the most profound risk to the future of our world. I am befuddled as to why the elimination of nuclear weapons is not the top priority for our G20 leaders. Before responding to this post, I reread Joseph Cirincione’s chapter on the continuing threat of nuclear war from Global Catastrophic Risks (Oxford University Press, 2008). I commend this book to all, specially those why waste mental resources on what I consider to be mythic End Times scenarios. There are a pletheora of ways that humanity is at risk of a naturally occurring End Times.

    • randal

      Well my disappointment with you began when I learned your political affiliation. But hey, it is what it is.

      “You can disagree with the premise that an Islamist regime would not be deterred by the threat of death but, if you grant the premise, it is hard to disagree with the conclusion.”

      I agree, if an argument is valid and you accept the premises then you accept the conclusion. I don’t accept the premise that nuclear first strikes against civilian populations are justifiable.

      Now why is Islam the bogeyman here? How about a Machiavellian leader who might engage in nuclear war to further the ends of his secular state. That potentially describes many nations including the United States. So if Japan had possessed nuclear weapons in July 1945 they could have engaged in a nuclear first strike against the United States.

      Anyway, how about we move from Harris’ reprehensible arguments which were, after all, referenced in one sentence, and turn to the central issues?

      • beetle

        I agree, if an argument is valid and you accept the premises then you accept the conclusion. I don’t accept the premise that nuclear first strikes against civilian populations are justifiable.

        Okay, so now which of Harris’ premises do you reject? You seem to mixing up a conclusion with a premise (but not Harris’ actual conclusion, so thing just get more confusing.) I also hear you saying that the United States actions at the end of WWII were not justifiable.

        Harris’ [misrepresented] reprehensible arguments which were, after all, referenced in one sentence.

        That would be two sentences, not the least of which was your concluding paragraph. I think we can be forgiven for not being willing to overlook the straw man.

        • randal

          Yes, you’re right, the actions of dropping nuclear bombs on civilian populations was not justified. It was one of the greatest war crimes in history. The only reason the president was not executed for that heinous war crime was because the United States won the war.

          Do you seriously think that if Hitler had dropped nuclear bombs on Miami and Denver that he would not have been sentenced for those actions at a military tribunal?

          • Beetle

            > It was one of the greatest war crimes in history.

            I give you marks for consistency on this position, but I bet it is not one you volunteer to your conservative audience! For what it is worth, I don’t actually disagree with you on this. I don’t understand why the Japanese (let alone the rest of the world) have apparently completely forgiven us.

            > The only reason the president was not executed…

            Was he even even seriously chastised? Let alone charged, tried, convicted, and pardoned?

            > if Hitler had dropped nuclear bombs…

            Your examples are like something out of a comic book!

            • randal

              “I give you marks for consistency on this position, but I bet it is not one you volunteer to your conservative audience!”

              I don’t know the audience to which you’re referring. But I wouldn’t hesitate from pointing out in any venue that this is an inconsistent and self-serving standard of justice which characterizes a nationalism inconsistent with Christian conviction. What’s the worst that could happen? I get crucified? At least I’d be in good company.

              “Your examples are like something out of a comic book!”

              Maybe I’ll write a graphic novel next.

  • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

    “those why waste” in the last paragraph of my comment above should read “those who waste”.

  • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

    Re: the central point of this post. What is religion? Simple: worldviews which ascribe certainty to supernatural truth claims. Many of the “isms” that you describe above would not satisfy this definition.

    • beetle

      Very nice definition of religion!

    • randal

      TAM, first of all that is silly. I’m an epistemic fallibilist. I don’t believe that epistemic (as opposed to psychological) certainty is possible. Does that mean I’m actually non-religious? Is Thom Stark non-religious? Is every epistemic fallibilist non-religious? Come on, you talk derisively about “religion” all the time. Surely you’ve got a more plausible definition than that!

      Oh, by the way, what is a “supernatural” truth claim? Since that is part of your definition as well, I presume you have a plausible definition of it?

      • Beetle

        Just thinking out loud here Randal, feel free to pick this apart, but how about: Religions are world views which ascribe credibility to mythic claims? Certainty may be too strong a word, and credibility is too weak. Religions are world views which ascribe truth to mythic claims? Of course, the word truth is quite loaded, but that does not make it inappropriate. Also Randal, I am not sure why you object to the word supernatural

        • randal

          Thanks for this. So to recap, your proposed definition is “Religions are world views which ascribe credibility to mythic claims.”

          I could ask you to define “myth”. But for now I’ll simply note two problems. First, by conventional understandings of the word “myth” your definition would encompass nationalism and communism as being religions. Second, if you ask a young earth creationist, they don’t understand their views to be mythic at all. On the contrary, they read Genesis 1-3 as if it were a straightforward narrative. Consequently it would follow that nationalists are religious but young earth creationists are not!

          I have no problem with the word supernatural. But I have a problem with people using it in a definition for “religious” when they’re not sure what it actually means. So I’m open to any suggestions.

        • beetle

          Since you have no problem with the word supernatural, can we please work on defining that word later? It also occurs to me that our definition should at least partially distinguish between a lone mad man, and one that can lead others. So how about this:

          Religions are belief systems which ascribe truth to supernatural claims.

          • randal

            Of course you need to define “supernatural” since that is essential to your definition! The rest of it “belief systems which ascribe truth to…” could be anything. So please define what you mean by “supernatural” in that definition.

            And as you proceed ask yourself: do Buddhism and Confucianism qualify as “religion” based on this definition?

          • beetle

            It might be a big assumption, but for the moment let us assume we can manage to agree on a suitable definition for supernatural. Provisionally then, does this definition work for you?

            I did have Buddhism in mind when I proposed this definition, since that tradition places high value (truth) to certain specific supernatural claims. I don’t really know enough about Confucianism to know if my proposed definition works there, but I suspect it does.

  • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

    [Sorry for the multiplicity of posts]

    I have no quarrel with anyone who admits that they could be wrong. The problem with some Christian fundamentalists is that, recognizing the import of 1 Corinthians 15:14, they refuse to make this concession. Of course, the same can be said of fundamentalists of other religious faiths.

    My “binary opposition” is limited to those hypocrites who claim that their god is beyond our comprehension and then, in the same breath, claim to know (with a certainty they would be willing to follow to their deaths) the attributes of this divine being.

    • randal

      “I have no quarrel with anyone who admits that they could be wrong. The problem with some Christian fundamentalists is that, recognizing the import of 1 Corinthians 15:14, they refuse to make this concession. Of course, the same can be said of fundamentalists of other religious faiths.”

      Don’t you see that you’re refuting yourself? You already defined a “religion” as a “worldview which ascribes certainty to supernatural truth claims”. But now you recognize that only some adherents of “religious faiths” in fact do this. So you’ve just admitted that ascribing such certainty is not essential to being “religious”.

      So what is “religion”?

  • AcesLucky

    Listen to each of you. Now look at the title of this post.

    Any questions?

    • randal

      Yes, I have a question. Would you please defend the nonsensical statement you made that I cited in the article?

      • AcesLucky

        That religious violence is a myth, is itself nonsense.

        • randal

          In other words, you’re going to refuse to defend your statement on “faith”?
          In defense of your current claim can you please explain what “religious violence” is over-against “non-religious violence”?

          • AcesLucky

            Violence motivated by religion. Go to Mecca with a cartoon of Mohammed on your t-shirt fully exposed. What do you think will happen and why?

            • randal

              “Please explain what “religious violence” is over-against “non-religious violence”. You obviously have some sort of definition of “religion” in mind such that you can identify some instances of violence, but not others, as religious. So what is that definition exactly? Don’t think that because you happen to be an orangutan I’m going to let you off easy.

              • AcesLucky

                Violence motivated by religion. How many times can I answer?

                • randal

                  I’m asking you to define what religion is. Didn’t you read my post? Haven’t you read the comment thread? What is it that makes something a “religion” and thus the violence produced by that thing “religious violence”? When is it a “religion” as opposed to a “philosophy” or a “political system” or an “economic system” or something else?

  • Beetle

    Okay, here’s a question that is responsive to the title of this post at least. Does Cavanaugh dismiss as non-religious the violence associated with, for example, the crusades, the Inquisition, 9/11?

    • randal

      In all those cases there were religious, economic, political, social, and personal factors which contributed to the resulting violence. It is a bizarrely reductionistic worldview which can reify from the complexities of lived history a single factor (i.e. “Religion” [as yet undefined]) as the single central factor in all these examples of violence.

      • beetle

        > In all those cases there were religious, economic, political, social, and personal factors which contributed to the resulting violence.

        That is trivially true, so what? If you can name another single central factor in all these examples of violence, I would love to hear it!

        “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” Steven Weinberg

        • randal

          Sorry Beetle, coffee mug quotes don’t push the conversation forward.

          You still haven’t even defined what you mean by “religion”. And that is essential. Only by defining what “religion” is can you say “person A has ‘religion’ and thus is more prone to violence but person B doesn’t have ‘religion’ and thus is less prone to violence.” So pleaes define “religion”.

          • beetle

            You have been provided two workable definitions for religion.

            > you say “person A has ‘religion’ and thus is more prone to violence but person B doesn’t have ‘religion’ and thus is less prone to violence.”

            More dishonesty. That is not what I said.

      • AcesLucky

        Sure. Kill the infidel is not a violence of religion, but of social, political, and personal factors. Absolutely.

        • randal

          Let me repeat my request: please explain what “religious violence” is over-against “non-religious violence”. That is precisely the issue here.

  • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

    First of all, I maintain my definition of religion: worldviews which ascribe certainty to supernatural truth claims.

    What is a “supernatural truth claim”? Here are a few:

    1. The physical resurrection of Jesus;

    2. That Muhammed ascended to heaven on a winged horse.

    3. That an angel named Moroni (also resurrected, by the way) appeared to Joseph Smith Jr. and assisted him translate the Book of Mormon from ancient egyptian written on gold plates.

    4. That 75 million years ago, Xenu brought billions of people to Earth in spacecraft resembling Douglas DC-8 airliners, stacked them around volcanoes and detonated hydrogen bombs in the volcanoes. The thetans (i.e. souls) then clustered together, stuck to the bodies of the living, and continue to do this today. You might recognize this as one of the tenets of Scientology.

    5. That castrating oneself is the only true path to salvation – see the Skoptsy sect.

    6. Transubstantiation.

    7. Blood transfusions should not be used under any circumstances in medical treatment.

    8. Everything and everyone are just figments of your imagination. You are God and you are truly alone.

    I did not define those who are religious as being certain of the claims of their religion. I would define those who are “religious” as including the following:

    (i) those who are certain of the claims of their religion;

    (ii) those who believe the claims of their religion on a balance of probabilities; and

    (iii) those who don’t even believe the claims of their religion on a balance of probabilities but who hold out hope that the claims of their religion are true.

    Based on this definition, I have no doubt that Randal is religious and likely falls somewhere on the spectrum between (ii) and (iii).

    • randal

      TAM, how do you reconcile these two claims?

      (1) “First of all, I maintain my definition of religion: worldviews which ascribe certainty to supernatural truth claims.”
      (2) “I did not define those who are religious as being certain of the claims of their religion.”

      According to (1) a religion is something which ascribes certainty to supernatural truth claims. But then you say in (2) that those who are religious do not ascribe certainty to the supernatural truth claims of their religion. So what are you actually affirming?

      Next problem: you didn’t explain what your definition of “supernatural claim” is which allows you to define that set of eight claims as being supernatural. But it is precisely that definition that I’ve asked you for. So why don’t you provide the definition so I can consider it on its merits rather than enumerating the list of claims you believe are supernatural?

      Finally, you still haven’t defined what you mean by religion. Instead, after providing us with your set of claims you think are supernatural you go back to referring to “religion”. But I’m still waiting for a definition of what religion actually is since your original definition is false for the reasons I’ve provided (and other reasons too).

    • beetle

      TAM’s definition works more than not, there is rather large gulf between a definition being “false” versus its being imperfect. This dialog certainly disproves by example that what we mean by “religion” as a term isn’t particularly tricky to deal with. TAM’s examples of religious supernatural claims demonstrates that we have compatible understanding of that word too.

  • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

    Randal, if you are aware of any religion which has a dogma that includes the proviso “you know, we might be wrong”, please let me know.

    Religions, by my definition, claim to disseminate the truth (i.e. that which corresponds with reality) about a wide variety of things, usually including what happens to an individual following their death. Religions invariably invoke the supernatural or, if you look for online definitions not created by TAM, you will find references to belief in “superhuman agency”.

    Those who are “religious” encompass the set which I defined in my comment above. Those who are religious have varying degrees of commitments to the truth claims of their religion. Do you take issue with my claim that there are varying degrees of religiosity among individuals?

    • randal

      “Randal, if you are aware of any religion which has a dogma that includes the proviso “you know, we might be wrong”, please let me know.”

      I am not aware of any religious creed or catechism that says “you know, we might be wrong” in the document. Nor am I aware of any political party policy document that includes such a statement. So what is your point exactly?

      Christian doctrine has a strong historical emphasis on epistemic fallibility, including the fallibility of theological constructions.

      Now let me go through your second paragraph, interspersing it with bracketed comments:

      “Religions, by my definition, claim to disseminate the truth (i.e. that which corresponds with reality) about a wide variety of things [so do scientific theories, economic theories, political theories, et cetera] usually including what happens to an individual following their death. [What do you mean "usually"? Many "religions" have no belief in personal existence after death.] Religions invariably invoke the supernatural [and what is that defined as?] or, if you look for online definitions not created by TAM, you will find references to belief in “superhuman agency”. [As I noted in my article, this invocation of 'gods' fails because many 'religions' are non-theistic.]”

      So we’re still at square one. No definition of supernatural, faith or religion. And yet without having any clear and coherent definition you marginalize people by using the terms. That’s something to think about, isn’t it?

      • beetle

        Randal, you have lost the arguement at every turn, so why not just restate your opening premise?

        • randal

          On the contrary, I’m still waiting for a definition of “religion”, “supernatural” and “faith” which identifies one segment of the general population against others. Thus far all the proposals have utterly failed for the reasons I’ve given. And that was precisely my point: all this language is a mere cipher to exclude segments of the population.

      • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

        Randal wrote; So we’re still at square one. No definition of supernatural, faith or religion. And yet without having any clear and coherent definition you marginalize people by using the terms. That’s something to think about, isn’t it?

        I have plenty to think about but this issue isn’t one of them. I have defined religions as worldviews which ascribe certainty to supernatural truth claims. Scientific theories, economic theories, political theories, etc. don’t satisfy this definition.

        “Supernatural”, as you well know, simply means that which cannot be explained by reference to natural phenomenon. Some would argue that the word itself makes no sense. For example, if there is a divine being who exists outside of our time and space in a dimension beyond our comprehension, that being is still arguably “natural” – we just can’t concieve of him/her/it. In any event, for my purposes, supernatural means something which violates our known laws of nature without any attempt to explain how those laws were violated aside from “my god did it”. For Christianity, my top 3 supernatural claims would be: 1. Physical resurrection of Jesus; 2. Virgin birth of Jesus; and 3. Jesus and Peter walking on water.

        You state: Many “religions” have no belief in personal existence after death. I never asserted that a religion had to ascribe belief in personal existence after death. What I asserted is that usually, religions assert what will happen to a person after they die. I would have said “all” religions satisfy this criteria but I can’t claim to be familiar with all of them. Again, scientific theories, economic theories, political theories, etc. don’t satisfy this definition.

        You then throw “faith” into the mix. Faith is simply a complete trust or confidence in someone or something. My criticism of faith in religion is that I believe that there is an insufficient amount of demonstrable evidence to ground that faith. As you know, any system of thought that relies on inductive reasoning involves an element of faith.

        I marginalize religion and those who fall in category (i) referred to above, not those who fall into categories (ii) and (iii) – see my May 16th 12:30 a.m. comment. Just to be clear, I do not marginalize the religious, only those religious who claim to be certain of the truth of the claims of their religion.

        If you want to define religion and religious differently, that’s fine. Let’s not forget Wittgenstein: “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language”.

        • randal

          “I have defined religions as worldviews which ascribe certainty to supernatural truth claims.”

          Yes, and I showed that this definition is false. As I noted, Christianity as a worldview doesn’t necessarily ascribe certainty to anything. Many Christians are fallibilists and believe certainty is not possible about any epistemic matters. So please stop repeating something that is blatantly false as if sufficient repetition will make it true.

          “’Supernatural’, as you well know, simply means that which cannot be explained by reference to natural phenomenon.”

          So anything that scientists cannot currently understand is supernatural?! That means the cosmic singularity that gave rise to the universe is supernatural? Ha ha ha ha! Nice definition.

          And then to top it all off, you contradict yourself again. While you originally defined religion as necessarily evolving “certainty” at the end you note that some adherents to religion do not ascribe certainty.

          In other words, your most fundamental definitions are a tortured mixture of ad hoc incoherencies.

          • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

            When I asked Randal if he knew of any religion that admitted they might be wrong, he responded:

            I am not aware of any religious creed or catechism that says “you know, we might be wrong” in the document. Nor am I aware of any political party policy document that includes such a statement. So what is your point exactly?

            My point is that religions, by definition, claim to offer certainty of the truth of their claims. [We'll leave supernatural aside for the moment] No scientific, political or economic theory offers certainty. They are all based on the best available evience and willing to change if better evdience becomes available.

            Randal then pulls this zinger out of his apologetic bag: Christianity as a worldview doesn’t necessarily ascribe certainty to anything. Surely he jests. The foundation of every Christian sect that I am aware of is the certain, unwavering belief (i.e. faith, the same kind of faith that I hold that the sun will rise tomorrow morning) that Jesus was a man, the son of God, who was crucified to atone for the sins of humanity, who rose from the dead, ascended to heaven and who will return to earth once again at the End Times). If Randal is contending that Christianity only takes the diluted position that “we’d like to believe all of this is true”, please just say so and we can end this discussion then and there.

            Randal demands that “religious” be synonymous with “adherents of religion”. Why? Religions offer tenets of dogma. The flock of religious adhere to these tenets in varying degrees, surely you can’t deny that?

            As for the definition of supernatural, I repeat supernatural means something which violates our known laws of nature without any attempt to explain how those laws were violated aside from “my god did it”.

            Finally, Randal (backed into a corner) pulls out the apologist’s favorite weapon of desperation and “goes nuclear”: Are you saying that every belief needs a sufficient reason? For deductive and abductive reasoning, I would say yes and for inductive reasoning (because I find Hume persuasive on this point) I would say no.

            Randal, then asks: If so, what is your sufficient reason for holding that belief? It works. Could I be wrong? Sure.

            • randal

              “My point is that religions, by definition, claim to offer certainty of the truth of their claims.”

              Show me one definition in peer-reviewed literature that offers this as a definition of “religion”. I want to be charitable here but that’s stupid. Christianity makes truth claims but it makes no claims about the epistemic status (e.g. the incorrigibility or indefeasibility or psychological certitude) of those claims. And the same is true for all the other religions I know. Your statement would also mean that mathematics is “religion”.

              “The foundation of every Christian sect that I am aware of is the certain, unwavering belief….”

              What is your evidence to support this claim? The Apostles’ Creed? The Nicene Creed? The Pope? What? Innumerable Christians are fallibilists like myself and there is no inconsistency at all between Christianity and fallibilism.

              And now you offer a new definition of supernatural as something which violates known laws of nature. Are you aware that the concept “law of nature” belongs to philosophy of science before it ever gets to science? Within many philosophies of science there is no such thing as a violation of a law of nature because science is a purely statistical, descriptive discipline, i.e. one which charts regularities in nature. In addition, many philosophies of science are antirealist such that scientific theories predict phenomena but do not describe the actual structure of reality. So to invoke the violation of a law of nature as the definition of what is “supernatural” just sinks you deeper into your morass. Moreover, you still haven’t defined “natural” as something over-against the “Supernatural”.

              You think that deductive reasoning needs sufficient reasons? Ever heard of axioms?

              • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

                Randal, perhaps you (like Plantinga) want to treat the existence of God as an axiom. The rest of us prefer to have that belief grounded on sufficient evidence. The problem, as has been repeated by several on your blog recently, is that a world in which your god exists appears indistinguishable from one in which he doesn’t exist. If you accept this proposition, who cares if he exists or not?

                Even if I were to grant that the existence of God is axiomatic, surely you are not suggesting that the tenets of Christianity (however you choose to define them) are axiomatic – are you?

                I make no secret of my difficulty in defining the supernatural. It’s hard to define something that you don’t believe exists.

                If a Christian, like you, admits they are a fallibilist and that their faith in the risen Christ might well be in a vain, I give them nothing but respect. As you point out in “You’re Not as Crazy as I Think”, the difference then boils down to the degree to which people find evidence persuasive. I find that debate invigorating, as I know you do as well.

                In closing, I have always viewed fallibilism and the claims of religion (any religion, pick one) to be mutually exclusive. If I have been in error on this, I will be grateful for you setting me straight.

                • randal

                  “I make no secret of my difficulty in defining the supernatural. It’s hard to define something that you don’t believe exists.”

                  Not at all. I have no problem defining “Santa Claus” but I don’t believe he exists.

                  “In closing, I have always viewed fallibilism and the claims of religion (any religion, pick one) to be mutually exclusive. If I have been in error on this, I will be grateful for you setting me straight.”

                  That’s what I’ve been doing. To stipulate that religions are belief systems that teach certainty in supernatural claims is thus flawed twice over. First, those things commonly recognized as religions don’t necessarily do that. They teach a set of claims but not the degree of epistemic conviction a person should have to that system. On the other hand, you should try visiting the Democratic or Republican national conventions. How many qualifications of “we could be wrong” do you think you’ll hear there? Does that make those meetings religious? (Perhaps they are religious, but not simply for that reason.)

                  Second, without a definition of “supernatural” so we know what kind of claim the “Religious” demand certainty in, your definition is flawed yet again.

                  So in sum, you have been isolating a segment of the population as epistemically subpar because they are “religious” and yet you have no real definition of what it is to be “religious” beyond having beliefs different from yours.

                  • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

                    [Please pass the mashed potatoes]

                    Just to be clear, you are ignoring my tripartite definition of religious.

                    I have attended a national political convention as a delegate (in Canada) and I wholeheartedly agree with you. There are definite parallels between partisan politics and religions.

                    Finally, on an unrelated note, your comment on the bombing of civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki constituting war crimes was dead on. Churchill was correct when he observed that “History is written by the victors“.

                    • randal

                      I hope your reference to being “dead on” wasn’t a pun.

                      You say there are parallels between politics and religion. But are there more than just parallels? When is politics religious?

                      I refuted the core of your definition on certainty and the supernatural.

        • Oz Rob

          TAM wrote: ““Supernatural”, as you well know, simply means that which cannot be explained by reference to natural phenomenon. (snip) In any event, for my purposes, supernatural means something which violates our known laws of nature without any attempt to explain how those laws were violated aside from “my god did it”.”

          This catches quantum phenomena which can be repeatedly demonstrated but not explained. I am thinking specifically of photon entanglement, and the choice of an experiment determining the finding eg. if you choose to do an interference experiment, you will find an interference pattern. If you choose to look for the locality of a particle, you will find it. The inexplicability of these phenomena resulted in the (in)famous dictum “Shut up and calculate”. Observation determines reality, which raises an awful lot of difficult questions for materialists. Once more underlining Randal’s point about how hard it is to seriously define concepts like ‘supernatural’.

          @ Randal, on topic – “The Democide Project” has significantly undermined the “religion causes violence” thesis.

  • Robert

    Faith: The thing I should feel bad for not having if I say to someone, “Why do you choose to believe that unverifiable claim, as opposed to some other unverifiable claim?”

    • randal

      The wording of this is curious. Are you saying that faith is belief in unverified claims?

      If that’s how you define “faith” then why would that make you “feel bad” about it? After all, every person does this. We’re all in the same boat. To demand verification of every belief would result in an infinite regress.

      So Robert has “faith” by this definition. So does “The Atheist Missionary” and “Beetle” and the rest of this motley crew.

      • Robert

        I think faith has a lot of different meanings. One of them depends on someone believing unverifiable claims to the exclusion of other unverifiable claims.

        I don’t feel bad for having or not having this kind of faith, but Biblically, it’s pretty clear that I am obligated to belief some unverifiable claims. Presumably, I should feel bad for my unwillingness to do that.

        Yes, we all believe at least a few unverifiable claims. I for one, believe that having reasons for belief is better than not having reasons. That itself is an unverifiable belief! Ah!

        So … have we hit a wall? Is the difference between “faith” in unverifiable claims of Islam and “faith” in having reasons for belief too impossible to sort out?

        • randal

          I think you’re beginning to recognize that the common claim one hears among atheists (et al) that they use “reason” and not “faith” is indefensible. And that is a good thing. It means one can’t exclude certain persons by calling them “faith heads” or whatever. One can’t marginalize them. And one might actually have to listen to them.

          So our first indefensible binary opposition is defeated. Now on to the “religious” vs. “non-religious” binary opposition.

          • Robert

            See my comment below. Reason is required if you want to live past the age of 2. Other types of “faith” might be required to enter the pearly gates of heaven, but that is yet to be confirmed.

            • randal

              You need to define “reason”. Do you mean “belief based upon evidence”? If so, then what constitutes “evidence”? Does a memory constitute evidence for something? What about an immediate rational or moral intuition? What about a sensory experience? What is the range of things you would consider as possible evidence for belief?

              • Robert

                As iron sharpens iron …

                Randal you are a good sparring partner! For now, I’ll have to say “I don’t know.”

              • Robert

                What is the range of things you would consider as possible evidence for belief?

                Anything we can observe, including our own memories, the beliefs of others, emotions, and sensations of the external world.

                Some sensations and emotions constitute stronger evidence than others, but we should not be surprised at any of these things being evidence at all. If my emotions can be changed by the state of reality, then they provide at least some ‘entanglement’ or ‘correspondence’ that is useful in constructing new beliefs and updating old ones.

                Some people see that emotions and the beliefs of others are often wrong and therefore should not be trusted. But there are times when the belief of another is darn good evidence, like when your mother says “I think your breath smells bad.” Don’t ignore that one. :-)

      • Robert

        I’ll answer my own question: No. The difference between (1) unverifiable claims of [insert religion] and (2) the statement “it is better to have reasons for belief than not” is possible to see.

        How can I say that? Enter Darwin. If someone *doesn’t* hold to the idea that having reasons to form beliefs and actions are necessary, Darwinian evolution will remove them from our gene pool. Their failure to map what is real in the physical world to beliefs inside their brain will kill them.

        We believe reasons are good because our environment demands it. Whether or not you believe Darwinian evolution has been occurring on this planet for 3 billion years doesn’t really change that either. The world is what it is. Our survival depends on creating an internal map of reality that is close-enough.

        Do any claims of [insert religion] have such a rock-solid foundation that also gives belief in them this properly basic status?

        • randal

          Robert, you invoked the term “proper basicality”. A properly basic belief is one that doesn’t require reasons. It is the beginning of reason. What is your criterion for discerning which beliefs are properly basic?

          • Robert

            Randal, I think our goal should be to map what is real and to weed out parts of our map that are not real. If God is real we want him/it/they/she to be included in our map of reality. If unicorns are real, let’s include them too.

            A good starting point for our map is to include things that can be proven real by empirical evidence.** Why? Because the Darwin awards will come knocking on our door if we don’t at leasts include some of them. The world as it is will kill us if we ignore things like “don’t drink mercury”.

            There’s another reason to put more weight to empirical truths: Intuitions and personal experiences are fallible far more often we would like to admit; nearly all human brains are subject to certain biases. On the other hand, the scientific method is really darn good at discovering truths counterintuitive to them; It can protect us against our own biases.

            Can other things be properly basic, or not? Maybe. I don’t know. Do you have any to propose?

            ** I’m calling this “properly basic”, but I might be using the term wrong.

            • randal

              “A good starting point for our map….”

              But that statement isn’t an empirical truth, so how does it ever get qualified? You’ve got to pull yourself up with your own bootstraps.

              “Do you have any to propose?”

              Sure. I wrote a book defending an a posteriori approach to proper basicality. I have also blogged about it so many times it gives me nosebleeds just thinking about it. Among the types of belief that could be (the “could be” is a whole big conversation about doxastic environment and defeaters that I don’t want to get into now) properly basic include sense perception, memory, rational intuition, testimony, et cetera.

              • Robert

                Randal, I have to be honest. Your book is still on my reading list, just behind Dawkins … ha-ha just kidding.

                Anyway, has your a posteriori approach been reviewed in any rigorous way – you know – like an academic paper or something?

                I’m wondering how it would fare on a site like LessWrong. They are generally unimpressed by theism, but if there are good reasons to believe God is real, an unusually high percentage of them would be willing to change their mind.

                • randal

                  I defend those views in my Oxford University Press book. But that kind of a posteriori approach to epistemology is quite widespread in contemporary epistemology and there is nothing particularly controversial about it.

          • Robert

            P.S. Can you tell I’m being influenced by LessWrong?

  • Robert

    The term is pretty ambiguous, so here are a few more:

    – Exactly the same as inductive reasoning; thus, you have “faith” that the sun will rise tomorrow.

    – Similar to the concept of trust: God must be good (believed for any number of reasons, including faith), and I’m sure He knows what He’s doing.

    – Similar to the concept of credibility; the Bible’s always been right before, so I imagine it will be right on this other issue here, even though I’m not sure how.

    – A direct meddling of the Holy Spirit in the internal workings of your brain, so that you are able to mystically come to the right answer about whether or not to believe something despite otherwise insufficient evidence.

    – A decision to believe something even though you have insufficient reasons for doing so.

    – A decision to follow some idea that seems intuitively true, and to give empirical evidence less weight than these personal intuitions.

    – An incomprehensible thing for the limited human mind – don’t even try to think about it.

    – A circular and properly basic assertion: “I know that I exist because I know, and likewise I know that God exists because I know, and likewise I know that the apostle Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit because I know, and likewise I know that the Bible is perfectly true because I know …”

  • Robert

    … and now for my commentary. :-)

    It’s frustrating that when we discuss “faith”, the real thing we are talking about bounces from one definition to the next.

    Someone might start out asking about my “faith” (e.g. my ability to trust someone given partial knowledge). But later in the conversation they use the word “faith” to point out that I expect the sun will rise tomorrow. Finally, they say I am inconsistent for accepting “faith” in the sun but not “faith” in the Son.

    I’m sorry, but this is just a mess! Do they think I should use inductive reasoning to believe that a man’s death and reported resurrection will somehow save me from eternal torment?

    Avoiding the word “faith” all together would force people to think about that thing they are discussing and stick to it. At least we would avoid talking past each other so much.

    • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

      Robert’s comments are excellent. I like this definition of faith the best: A decision to believe something even though you have insufficient reasons for doing so.

      I look forward to hearing Randal explain who we should use inductive reasoning to accept the fundamental tenets of Christianity (i.e. resurrection, substitutionary atonement and eternal life in heaven for the chosen few).

      • randal

        ” A decision to believe something even though you have insufficient reasons for doing so.”

        This is different from Robert’s definition. Are you saying that every belief needs a sufficient reason? If so, what is your sufficient reason for holding that belief?

    • randal

      “Do they think I should use inductive reasoning to believe that a man’s death and reported resurrection will somehow save me from eternal torment?”

      If you’re talking about the historicity of the resurrection the historian uses abductive reasoning, not inductive.

      Robert, as I noted you gave a definition of faith that applies to every person. That’s exactly my point. There is no subset of the population of thinking persons that exercises “faith”. We all do.

      • Robert

        Sure, I have faith, but that doesn’t tell you much. Did I mean to say I sometimes trust based on partial knowledge or did I mean that I accept a whole truckload of claims from a so-called holy book?

        Isn’t it better to stop debating definitions and just replace the symbol with the substance? If we can’t talk about faith without using f-a-i-t-h, then I really doubt we have a clear idea of what it is we mean by faith in the first place.

        • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

          Faith is a polysemic term. There’s nothing wrong with that; all the most useful words are. Your list only goes to show how versatile the word is. The person who introduces the term at any given point simply needs to define it, and everyone else needs to avoid their prejudices long enough to work within that definition.

          • Robert

            Agreed

  • AcesLucky

    The Malleus Maleficarum (Latin for “The Hammer of Witches”, or “Hexenhammer” in German) is one of the most famous medieval treatises on witches. It was written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, and was first published in Germany in 1487. Its main purpose was to challenge all arguments against the existence of witchcraft and to instruct magistrates on how to identify, interrogate and convict witches.

    Some modern scholars believe that Jacob Sprenger contributed little if anything to the work besides his name, but the evidence to support this is weak. Both men were members of the Dominican Order and Inquisitors for the Catholic Church. They submitted the Malleus Maleficarum to the University of Cologne’s Faculty of Theology on May 9, 1487, seeking its endorsement.

    [http://www.malleusmaleficarum.org/]

    The myth of religious violence, you say? Give it a read.

    • randal

      I’ll repeat it again: please explain what “religious violence” is over-against “non-religious violence”. Humans exercise violence against one another all the time for a myriad of factors. But based on what do you say that the violence is “religious”?

      • Walter

        Humans exercise violence against one another all the time for a myriad of factors. But based on what do you say that the violence is “religious”?

        How about when the perpetrator of any violent act does a bad deed because he or she believes that it is the will of a deity? Would you not consider this to be religiously motivated violence?

        • randal

          That could be classified as religious violence, but it would seem to me neither necessary nor sufficient to classify an act of violence as religious. Picture Jeanne, a suburban housewife with no religious affiliation. She has a baby and suddenly develops the belief that God wants her to kill her baby. She does so. Is that religiously motivated violence simply because it was motivated by a belief that a deity she had no beliefs about previously commanded her to do something? That would be a strange definition of “religious violence”.

          On the other hand, what if non-theistic Confucianists and Buddhists start killing one another? Is that religious violence?

          • Walter

            On the other hand, what if non-theistic Confucianists and Buddhists start killing one another? Is that religious violence?

            If their respective religions are the cause of the dispute then I would say that the violence is at least partially motivated by their particular religious beliefs. I guess that I am not seeing what the big deal is in admitting that religion can be divisive, and occasionally lead to violence.

            From my point of view, the danger is when people become dogmatic in their beliefs and refuse to accept that they might actually be wrong. This problem extends far beyond just religion.

            I do not fear religion, I fear dogmatism.

            • randal

              “If their respective religions are the cause of the dispute then I would say that the violence is at least partially motivated by their particular religious beliefs. I guess that I am not seeing what the big deal is in admitting that religion can be divisive, and occasionally lead to violence.”

              I don’t see any problem with that either. My whole point has been that it is absurd and reductionistic to reify something called “Religion” as an especially dangerous source of violence and intolerance over-against other things like “economics”, “politics” and “science”.

            • beetle

              Okay Randal, we can to drop the “especially” qualifier! We all agree that religion is one dangerous source of violence and intolerance!

              • randal

                Well we still haven’t defined what religion is, so I’m not sure that it is meaningful to talk about “religion” as a source of “violence and intolerance”. Is it really illuminating to talk about politics, or art, or economics or literature as a “dangerous source of violence and intolerance”?

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    …for there is no adequate definition of religion. It is said that religion has “gods”, a stipulation that is difficult to reconcile with most forms of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.

    Interesting that you don’t quote anyone specific who says that “religion has ‘gods'”.

    I’ve already told you my definition of ‘religion’, and it doesn’t fall into the traps you talk about.

    So far as I’ve seen, there’s a single, very simple difference between a religious and a non-religious worldview. Religious worldviews include some concept of the supernatural, and non-religious ones don’t… It’s worth noting that the ‘religions’ that least depend on such notions – e.g. Buddhism or Confucianism – are also the most likely to be called ‘philosophies’ or something similar. There’s already doubt that they ‘count’ as religions.

    • randal

      What counts as “supernatural”? Is a supervenient view of the mind supernatural? What about platonic universals? Are they supernatural? Or substance dualism? Is that supernatural? What about ghosts?

      So a Buddhist monk isn’t religious but an investment banker who goes to no church and believes in no sacred text but who believes in ghosts is religious?

      • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

        What counts as “supernatural”?

        You already know what I consider to be supernatural.

        • randal

          Are you trying to resurrect a statement that has already been buried?

          • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

            Buried, perhaps. Addressed… I remain unconvinced.

      • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

        So a Buddhist monk isn’t religious

        Depending on the strain of Buddhism, yes.

        but an investment banker who goes to no church and believes in no sacred text but who believes in ghosts is religious?

        If there’s such a thing as ‘organized religion’, there must be the converse, no?

        • randal

          Certainly I can’t stop you from inventing such idiosyncratic uses of the term “religious”. And if I want I can define “science” as “a discipline in which people use test tubes and lwear aboratory coats.”

          But when you find your proposed usage defended anywhere in peer-reviewed literature, let me know.

          • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

            Wait… as I’ve noted before, there are plenty of people who dispute the idea that some strains of Buddhism aren’t ‘religions’, but are rather ‘philosophies’. I didn’t invent that.

            And yes, ‘disorganized religion’ exists as well… or is ‘organized religion’ a redundancy?

    • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

      So far as I’ve seen, there’s a single, very simple difference between a religious and a non-religious worldview. Religious worldviews include some concept of the supernatural, and non-religious ones don’t.

      I think what Randal is trying to point out is that you’re getting dangerously close to the “everybody but me” argument that Christian subgroups are berated for. It sounds like a Seventh Day Adventist: “There’s a single, very simple difference between a good and an evil worldview. Good worldviews worship Jesus on Saturday; evil ones don’t.” Or Islam: “There’s a single, very simple difference between a just worldview and an unjust worldview. Just worldviews say Allah is God and Muhammad is His prophet; evil ones don’t.” Or the Phelps: “There’s a single, very simple difference between truth and heresy. Truth says God hates fags; heresy doesn’t.” Any delineation that sets things us in an “everybody but us” setup is suspect.

      • Jerry Rivard

        Even this one? “There’s a single, very simple difference between a good and an evil worldview. Evil worldviews sanction the use of violence against human beings who speak and act peacefully in opposition to that worldview. Good ones don’t.”

        • http://twitter.com davidstarlingm

          That’s a great distinction, that many people from many different (and contradictory) worldviews would be able to agree on.

          And that means that it isn’t an “everybody-but-us” distinction. And that’s good.

          Because “good” and “evil” are such polysemic terms, I’d change it slightly:

          Evil worldviews sanction the use of violence against human beings who speak and act peacefully in opposition to that worldview. Better ones don’t.

          • Jerry Rivard

            I’m sticking with “good”. I mean it in the good-evil sense, not in the good-better-best sense, nor in the sense of whether (or the degree to which) that worldview is correct or incorrect.

            However, it is an everybody-but-us distinction in the sense that “us” includes the vast majority of human beings who respect the rights of others to live in peace and liberty, regardless of the extent of their disagreements. Harris makes me cringe sometimes too, but his comments about the possible necessity of first strikes against “them” should be re-evaluated in that context (as well as in their entirety and with regard to Harris’s own follow up comments).

            • http://twitter.com davidstarlingm

              I don’t know that I can call a worldview “good” just because it doesn’t sanction violence against peaceful protesters. Scientology, homeopathy, and the Westboros are all measurably harmful worldviews, but they do not specifically sanction violence against their detractors. Hence the evil/better distinction. Scientology is better than the Army of God, but that doesn’t make it morally good.

              When I say “everybody-but-us”, I mean the sort of distinctive that separates you and the people that share the exact same core beliefs from the rest of the world. I was referring specifically to “Any worldview that includes any supernatural belief is religious; any worldview that doesn’t isn’t”, because that ends by simply grouping only atheists/agnostics on one side and everyone else on the other.

  • MGT2

    Religion is a framework within which a person’s way of life and actions are guided by certain beliefs and propositions to which they feel morally obligated. Thus, all actions so motivated are products of the religious impulse, and are carried out based upon faith.

    • randal

      I’d have to think about your definition some more. But I will note that it catches in the net of relgiosity many self-described secularists, and that is definitely a good sign.

    • beetle

      Don’t you think that definition has the defect of applying to things like communism? (I find it odd that Randal would seem characterize this as a virtue.)

      • randal

        Beetle, Karl Marx’s dialectical materialism is a secular version of Hegel’s philosophy/theology. And more recently Francis Fukuyama did the same thing with democratic capitalism.

  • AcesLucky

    You asked: ““Please explain what “religious violence” is..”

    I answered with, “Violence motivated by religion.”

    Then you asked: “I’m asking you to define what religion is.”

    Look Mr. Clinton, you’re obviously going to conclude that “it depends on what the definition of “is” is.”

    It’s your way of wiggling out of corners. How about you answer my question now. I’ll repeat: Go to Mecca with a cartoon of Mohammed on your t-shirt fully exposed. What do you think will happen and why?

    See? By giving an honest real life answer, the myth of religious violence stands or fails the philosophical boo boo. The factor? Real life!! A ring side seat to RELIGIOUS VIOLENCE. (A family event!)

    You see, the beating or beheading you will receive won’t give a fig about satisfying your criteria of what religion is. The fact of religious violence remains, and has bloodied this earth for centuries. How dare anyone so dishonestly pretend it myth?

    • randal

      And if you wore an “Obama in 2012″ T-shirt to the Republican National Convention what do you think would happen and why? Therefore politics leads to violence, right?

      Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way let’s get back to the main issue. My blog post says that people like yourself malign “religion” while failing to define what this thing called religion is. And here you go proving my thesis over and over again.

  • AcesLucky

    Okay, I get it. If I’m beat up at the Republican convention for wearing an Obama t-shirt, it’s not politically motivated.

    Riiiiiight. Got it.

    • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

      There’s a difference between “politically motivated” and “motivated by politics”. In the former case, the motivator is hidden within the weak modifier “politically”; the adverb makes no presumptions about the identity or leanings of the actor, just that a politically-oriented idea played a part in the motivation. In the latter case, the noun “politics” is used as the object of the preposition “by”, which makes it (as an entity) directly responsible for the motivation.

      No violence has ever been motivated by politics (as a holistic entity). Violence can, however, be motivated in a political fashion by extremists. The same is true for religion; the holistic entity of religion cannot motivate anything, but extremism can use religious rhetoric to motivate violence.

      “Religious” and “political” serve as modifiers to the extremism, not modifiers to the violence.

      Yay, rhetorical grammar.

    • randal

      That wasn’t the point at all.

      Why don’t you address the question I’ve put to you multiple times? What is “religious” violence over-against other kinds of violence? Or, to put it another way, since you clearly have no clue, why don’t you stop using the term?

  • AcesLucky

    “Why don’t you address the question I’ve put to you multiple times? What is “religious” violence over-against other kinds of violence?”

    Violence motivated by religion is religious violence. Violence motivated by politics is political violence. Violence motivated by race is racial violence. Etc.

    Now answer the question I’ve been putting to you. If you went to Mecca with Mohammed on your exposed t-shirt and you were beheaded, would the violence be motivated by religion?

    Any honest person can easily answer that question. But you’re trying to support a position that is not supported by reality. They will in fact kill you, even as you clutch your crucifix, they will kill you! You know this, I know this.

    And we both are perfectly aware of what it is motivated by.

    • http://twitter.com davidstarlingm

      Violence motivated by religion is religious violence. Violence motivated by politics is political violence. Violence motivated by race is racial violence. Etc.

      No. Religious violence is violence motivated by religious extremism. Political violence is violence motivated by political extremism. Racial violence is violence motivated by racial extremism.

      Do you see the difference? No? Let me make it clearer, using your last example.

      The term “violence motivated by race” is a completely ridiculous one. Are you saying that a person’s race motivates violence? The existence of different ethnic groups causes people to shoot each other? That makes no sense. In the same way, “violence motivated by religion” is ridiculous; the presence of religious belief does not cause violence. In both cases, it is a particular type of extremism that motivates the violence. The adjectives “religious”, “racial”, and “political” modify the extremism, not the violence.

      Rhetoric and grammar….rhetoric and grammar.

      Now answer the question I’ve been putting to you. If you went to Mecca with Mohammed on your exposed t-shirt and you were beheaded, would the violence be motivated by religion?

      Nope. The violence would be motivated by religious extremism, which is a form of prejudice just like racial extremism or political extremism.

      Saying that the violence would happen because the Muslims are religious is like saying that gang violence happens because the gang members are black. It’s totally prejudiced and utterly tasteless.

  • AcesLucky

    The term “violence motivated by race” is a completely ridiculous one???????

    So, the Holocaust never happened, and the KKK is an alphabet story for children, right?

    Dave, events and motivations don’t go away because you challenge the grammar. I’m afraid it’s your denial of reality that makes this conversation ridiculous.

    Peace.

    • http://twitter.com davidstarlingm

      The term “violence motivated by race” is a ridiculous one because race does not motivate violence. Racial prejudice motivates violence.

      In the same way, religion does not motivate violence. Religious prejudice motivates violence.

      See the difference?

  • Pingback: On the Myth of Religious Violence « thereformedmind

  • Lol

    Oh wow, another Christian trying to justify the barbarism of idiotic religions. Nice. Not surprising, given the barbaric nature of the old testemant.

    And hell no parents should not be brainwashing children with their religion. Good for Amnesty International. Fact of the matter is, the major determining factor of someone’s religion is what religion their parents believe in. We wouldn’t have so many idiots running around proclaiming the earth is 4000 years old if parents weren’t allowed to pollute their children’s minds with that kind of rubbish.

    • Brad Haggard

      Lol for president in 2012!

  • Pingback: Religion briefly defined

  • nick

    I have just read through some of these posts. It seems to be a common thing that those of the Atheist persuasion don’t link their world view to their actions and philosophical foundation when confronted by the historical results it has produced. I believe the book by Cavanaugh will worth the time to read it. Like the cover too. Some above have tried to distinguish between religion and so called non-religion by attempting to use the term faith a core idea. But, faith is confidence in a reliable source. So, if all belief systems used this term ‘confidence’ then naturalism would be the same as all other systems. Atheism is built on a foundation of ideas that they assert are correct. Therefore giving them ‘confidence’. The key difference of course is the metaphysical origin. But, naturalism is a metaphysical philosophical worldview. Perhaps one other thing that does come into play is the nature of sin, and the self deception that can occur. This would allow for the idea of Atheism being delusional, a product of the sin nature. To be fair atheism is not non rational per se, but it really needs to consider where an argument may end up. Perhaps at a concentration camp, or with an imprisoned Chinese Christian without charge. I have met some of these people.

    And since this discussion has been about violence it would be a thought provoking exercise the review the 20th century. Look at the progress and genius of humanity in action and our depravity did not waver one bit.
    Interestingly, Christianity can explain this contradiction quite well using reason and philosophical arguments. It also give hope now and for the future. Can Atheism do so, ultimately? What hope is there for those such as Christopher Hitchens mentioned above for example. He has since died. Was it really, ‘lights out’ for him. The response to his life achievements seems an interesting phenomena. One observes this and might claim that they wish there was more to this life.

    • Robert

      … if all belief systems used this term ‘confidence’ then naturalism would be the same as all other systems

      The rejection of “ontologically basic mental entities” sets naturalism apart from other belief systems.

      If ‘faith’ were a just synonym ‘confidence’, we could taboo the word ‘faith’ and start using ‘confidence’ instead. Bumper-stickers would start saying “Saved by Confidence!”, “Confidence Moves Mountains!” and my personal favorite “Confidence, Hope and Love … but the Greatest of these is Love.”

      • randal

        What do you mean by “ontologically basic”?

        Faith is commonly defined as belief plus trust. That seems roughly approximate to confidence. The fact that confidence looks queer when substituted for faith in sentences doesn’t mean much of anything. After all “blithesome” is a synonym for “Merry”, but nobody says “Have a blithesome Christmas!”

        • Robert

          Mental entities that cannot be reduced to nonmental entities. From http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com/2007/01/defining-supernatural.html

          • randal

            Yes, so here`s Carrier`s full def: “naturalism” means, in the simplest terms, that every mental thing is entirely caused by fundamentally nonmental things, and is entirely dependent on nonmental things for its existence.“

            This is, to say the least, strange. Consider a mental thing: my belief that I ought to take out my umbrella. This mental thing was caused, so I say, by a prior mental thing: the belief that it is raining.

            If Carrier is right then this kind of basic logical reasoning is impossible because one belief, a mental thing, cannot cause me to have another belief.

            I can`t imagine why anybody would believe anything like that apart from the perversity of a philosopher who likes to make himself believe silly things.

            • Robert

              If naturalism is true, then the first belief is actually and entirely a state of the brain. Can a state of the brain be reduced entirely into non-mental things? I think so.

              Under this model, mental experiences are a higher level representation of the world, but they do not exist independently of the physical components that make them up.

              Likewise we could ask: Does Boeing 747 have some fundamental physical existence apart from the quarks making it up? Probably not. Physics operates (as best as anyone can tell) according to low-level physical laws. The fact that my mind can’t accurately represent the atomic state an airplane is a fact about the limitations of my mind, not a fact about reality itself. The map is not the territory.

              When Randal talks about one mental thing “causing” another, he has already supposed that this mental thing has an existence apart from its components – like an airplane that exists apart from its atoms.

              Consider this: Does an airplane really exist?

              This question confuses people (and it might confuse Randal) because it asks if an abstraction or representation of some part of reality exists in reality. Of course it exists, it “exists” as a state of someone’s brain. Does it really exist? This is a confused question, because it treats the model of reality that we hold in our heads with reality itself as if the two are exactly the same. The map is not the territory.

              Naturalism requires that we make clear distinctions between reality and our internal models of reality. Do ideas “cause” other ideas? If you think an idea is a non-reducible thing, then you might think “it” can have agency and causal power. But if you think an idea is actually state of the brain, then looking for agency will turn you to science and make you ask some very difficult questions we have only started to explore.

              • randal

                I’m going to respond to your boldface comment because, well, it’s in boldface.

                “When Randal talks about one mental thing “causing” another, he has already supposed that this mental thing has an existence apart from its components – like an airplane that exists apart from its atoms.”

                The point is not to assume anything. Rather, it is to present a reductio ad absurdum. Consider that naturalism as defined is true. What follows? Well for one thing, one thought does not cause another thought. I would have thought that that is an adequate reason to reject naturalism. Why don’t you? (And keep in mind that as you ponder a response rationally your various thoughts that make up the flow of thought are in various rational/causal relations.)

                It’s like this Robert. You say the moon is made of green cheese. Uh, okay? That seems arbitrary to me. It seems to lack justification, but okay, if that’s what you want to believe. That is the arbitrary status of your naturalism thesis out of the gate. But now we land on the moon and have defeating evidence that your claim is false. That parallels my thought point.

                Now here’s the final kicker. My initial point didn’t assume what you claim it did. One thought can cause another even though it is dependent on material things. So if you define ontologically basic in causal terms then you’re doubly out of luck.

        • Robert

          Faith is commonly defined as belief plus trust.

          And to this extent, I have “faith”. Beliefs based on partial knowledge are something we all share.

          So let’s suppose this is a sufficient definition of faith. Let’s suppose that we could taboo the word “faith” and use “belief + trust” or “belief with partial knowledge” instead. Aside from the fact that these phrases would get old, would they capture the same meaning?

          I don’t think so. These phrases miss an important connotation: that faith is a virtue. It’s good to believe in some things, even if one is not sure why they are true.

          Did a man die and come back to life? It’s good to believe this assertion even if one is uncertain about it – even if one has no evidence beyond an internal mystical experience.

          William Craig thinks that mystical experience is completely sufficient for believing, and he believes that believing is a virtue (otherwise, why would his God punish people for not believing?)

          Nevermind that mystical experiences have a terrible track record at finding truths (how many religions are there?), that the brain is easily tricked (modern psychology anyone?), etc, etc. For Craig, he can label his experiences as an “indwelling of the Holy Spirit”, a “voice of God”, or a “faith experience” and suddenly they very powerful evidence to which there is no defeater. NO DEFEATER!

          You may not share these ideas about “faith”, but they are very often implied in the word. Do you see the distinction?

    • Robert

      Christianity can explain … Can Atheism do so, ultimately?

      If by ultimately you mean “after the heat-death of the universe”, then no. However, I like chocolate milk and my future demise does not change that. I have many desires that exist right now and they exist without any dependency on far-off futures.

      • randal

        But Nick’s kind of concern certainly provides a pragmatic argument for belief in the mode of Pascal’s wager and existentialist arguments for God’s existence.

        • Robert

          I don’t understand. Do you think those arguments are any good?

  • peter stanford

    this is pathetic. are you serious? no
    really, are you fucking serious? you are claiming that a demonstrable truth is
    a myth, and a demonstrable myth is the truth. as disturbing as this is, the
    rational and reasonable don’t have a problem with anything you want to believe.
    no matter how stupid and/or already proven wrong it is. as we keep saying again
    and again and again, only to have christians accuse us wanting to deny them
    their blah blah blah. I don’t debate christians anymore because, in a nutshell,
    what you believe is bullshit, we can prove it, game over. your position,
    however, is that no matter how proven a fact is, it can’t be true because it
    contradicts a totally fictitious idea that you have chosen to accept as the
    truth, despite it being completely unsupported by evidence, facts or proof.
    it’s not possible to hold a debate if one side thinks it can arbitrarily
    determine rules and definitions. you just decide that inconvenient facts aren’t
    facts. when presented with an argument that represents a serious problem for
    the doctrine or the policy or whatever, it’s ignored. not a mention in the
    reply. you don’t have a case. you don’t have anything credible to say. why are
    you still talking? I was accused straight out recently of wanting to deny
    christians their rights. is this a deliberate tactic you people use? blatant
    lies, fabrication, misrepresentation? this is all you’ve got left. you haven’t
    got a legitimate case to present so you talk shit and throw around false
    allegations. you can’t afford to concede the point. that would be unthinkable.
    actually admitting the whole thing’s nothing but a big fiction. yeah, not going
    to happen. so you have to keep what’s laughingly called “the debate”
    going somehow. and we’re expected to acknowledge and even respect, amazing,
    your bullshit, but you won’t acknowledge or respect our facts. and your article
    is a case in point. you can redefine anything to mean anything you like. what
    we mean is monumental, anachronistic institutions that have a superstitious and
    fictional pseudo-spiritual dogmatic doctrine as their ostensible raison detre.
    they are aggressive, violent and totalitarian. if you have the right to believe
    the bullshit you believe, and to support the cunts who perpetuate and
    disseminate it, people who are the worst criminals on the planet, surely, when all
    we are doing is asking you to leave us alone, we have the right to oppose you
    if you refuse. don’t you think?