Intelligent Design

“No war in the name of atheism”: Spot the fallacy

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Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal has written a comic that attempts to rebut a common criticism of atheism: the link between atheistic regimes and crimes against humanity. The dialogue proceeds as follows:

A: You argue that some of the worst atrocities in history were done in the name of religion, but plenty of atheists did terrible things too! My pastor told me that Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin were BOTH atheists!* [Author’s note: Hitler wasn’t actually an atheist. He was a Christian.] What does that tell you about atheism?

B: First off, just because they were both atheists doesn’t mean that their atheism caused them to do terrible things. They both had mustaches too. Does that mean that having a mustache turns you into a mass murderer? And second, saying you believe in atheism is like saying you believe in math. Hitler and Stalin didn’t go to war in the name of atheism, just like they wouldn’t go to war in the name of fractions or prime numbers. They went to war because they were twisted little a**holes. [I’ve inserted asterisks here, as this is a family-friendly blog – VJT.]

If Matthew Inman seriously believes that Hitler was a Christian, he should read this article here. But let us leave that aside. What are the fallacies in the atheists’s reply? I can spot several.

1. The atheist’s argument that “correlation does not equal causation” is factually mistaken. Hitler and Stalin may have both had mustaches, but Mao Zedong and Pol Pot, who were both totalitarian atheistic dictators that killed millions of people, did not. (Mao, by the way, is estimated to have killed 70 million people, making him the worst killer of all time.)

2. Although it is true that correlation does not equal causation, a robust, reliable correlation between A and B that holds in a variety of different circumstances does strongly support the hypothesis of a causal link between A and B. The question we then have to ask is whether A is causing B, B is causing A, or something else (call it C) is causing both A and B, together.

3. The atheist’s argument proves too much. I could say that amoralism, or moral nihilism (defined as the belief that nothing is intrinsically moral or immoral) hasn’t caused any wars either, insofar as no-one has gone to war in the name of amoralism. Is anyone going to seriously argue that amoralism doesn’t cause human rights atrocities?

4. The atheist in Inman’s cartoon uses the word “cause” in too narrow a sense: according to him, A causes B if and only if A makes B happen. But A can be the cause of B in another sense: as an enabler of B, which makes the occurrence of B more likely. It is in this sense that amoralism can legitimately be said to cause violations of human rights: someone who thinks that nothing is inherently wrong will have no problem with the idea of perpetrating a crimes against humanity, whereas someone who believes in objective moral values will. The question at stake then boils down to whether atheism functions as a similar enabler. And one could argue that it does: someone who does not believe there is a God Who punishes wicked deeds will have one reason less than a theist would for refraining from performing these deeds. Of course, the atheist may be a very well brought up person who would never dream of doing such a thing – but not all atheists (or theists) are well brought up!

5. The track record of atheistic regimes in the twentieth century has been pretty appalling. One could plausibly argue, on the basis of that track record, that atheism has been an enabling cause of violence.

6. If atheism is a vital ingredient of an ideology (such as Marxist Communism) that causes violence, then it logically follows that atheism is at least a contributing cause of that ideology’s violence.

7. Citing largely atheistic countries like Sweden and Denmark as counter-instances to the claim that atheism causes human rights atrocities is a bad move: while these countries may have a preponderance of atheists, their governments don’t make any systematic attempts to indoctrinate their citizens with atheism. Regimes that endeavor to turn their subjects (especially children) into atheists have (by and large) been the most horrific violators of human rights.

8. The fact that certain toxic forms of religion can cause terrible acts of violence (see here for one author’s highly controversial take on the subject) in no way undermines the thesis that atheism is capable of enabling equally bad acts of violence.

9. In any case, the logical way to establish whether atheism causes acts of violence is to compare the suffering caused by governments that promote atheism with the suffering caused by governments that don’t, using as large a historical database as possible, and then attempting to remove any anomalous complicating factors, so that the ceteribus paribus assumption (“other things being equal”) holds properly.

I might conclude with some comments from atrocitologist Matthew White, author of Atrocities: the 100 Deadliest Episodes in Human History, who is certainly no fan of religion:

Q: Is religion responsible for more more violent deaths than any other cause?

A: No, of course not — unless you define religion so broadly as to be meaningless. Just take the four deadliest events of the 20th Century — Two World Wars, Red China and the Soviet Union — no religious motivation there, unless you consider every belief system to be a religion.

Q: So, what you’re saying is that religion has never killed anyone.

A: Arrgh… You all-or-nothing people drive me crazy. There are many documented examples where members of one religion try to exterminate the members of another religion. Causation is always complex, but if the only difference between two warring groups is religion, then that certainly sounds like a religious conflict to me. Is it the number one cause of mass homicide in human history? No. Of the 22 worst episodes of mass killing, maybe four were primarily religious. Is that a lot? Well, it’s more than the number of wars fought over soccer, or sex (The Trojan and Sabine Wars don’t even make the list.), but less than the number fought over land, money, glory or prestige.

In my Index, I list 41 religious conflicts compared with 27 oppressions under “Communism”, 24 under Colonialism, 2 under “Railroads” and 2 under “Scapegoats”. Make of that what you will.

Readers might also enjoy Matthew White’s humorous article, Which has killed more people? Christianity or gun control?

What do readers think? Can you spot any more fallacies?

17 Replies to ““No war in the name of atheism”: Spot the fallacy

  1. 1
    markf says:

    VJ

    This is a blissfully concise but rather confused OP.  I am not sure whether you are claiming that atheism is a major cause of violence or refuting the claim that religion is a major cause of violence. Inman is only addressing the first. The claim that atheist regimes cause a lot of violence could mean several things: 

    (1 ) the leadership is atheist

    (2 ) the government imposes atheism as part of its policy

    (3 ) the population is mostly atheist

    And no doubt many others. Your “fallacy” 7 seems to imply that you accept that the Scandinavian countries are counterexamples to (1 ) and (3 ). So I guess you mean (2).  I am not sure that is what Inman meant  but just so long as it is clear.

    1. The atheist’s argument that “correlation does not equal causation” is factually mistaken. Hitler and Stalin may have both had mustaches, but Mao Zedong and Pol Pot, who were both totalitarian atheistic dictators that killed millions of people, did not.

    Clearly Inman could have pointed to any number of irrelevant facts that all of them had in common – like wearing trousers.

    2. Although it is true that correlation does not equal causation, a robust, reliable correlation between A and B that holds in a variety of different circumstances does strongly support the hypothesis of a causal link between A and B.

    There is no such robust reliable correlation.  The mass murdering governments of Japan and King Leopold of Belgium were not atheist in senses 1, 2 or 3. The religious status of Nazi Germany is uncertain but it was not atheist in sense 2. The communist regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe post Stalin were atheist in sense 2 but did not massacre tens of millions.

    3, 4 and 5 seem to be much the same point: atheism enables people to be more violent.  Theist leaders (and populations) have massacred very large numbers of people but not in the quantities that atheist leaders have done. So this comes down to the argument that unlike an atheist a theist leader would draw the line at massacring a few hundred thousand (or low millions in the case of Japan and Leopold) and not go on to massacre tens of millions.  Do you really think this is true of say Bin Laden? Was it his theist conscience that stopped him killing tens of millions? Was it their Christian conscience that stopped the Crusaders massacring more of the population of Jerusalem or a lack of means? It seems much more plausible to say the atheist leaders had the technology and organisation to do it while theist leaders down the ages have not.

    6. If atheism is a vital ingredient of an ideology (such as Marxist Communism) that causes violence, then it logically follows that atheism is at least a contributing cause of that ideology’s violence.

    That’s just a fallacy. It doesn’t follow.  The violence may flow from some aspects of an ideology and not others.

    I discussed 7 above.

    8. The fact that certain toxic forms of religion can cause terrible acts of violence (see here for one author’s highly controversial take on the subject) in no way undermines the thesis that atheism is capable of enabling equally bad acts of violence.

    Inman has not made that claim although it does  undermine the argument that atheism causes violence based on correlation (see 2 above).

    9. In any case, the logical way to establish whether atheism causes acts of violence is to compare the suffering caused by governments that promote atheism with the suffering caused by governments that don’t, using as large a historical database as possible, and then attempting to remove any anomalous complicating factors, so that the ceteribus paribus assumption (“other things being equal”) holds properly.

    Sure – but this is incredibly hard – so meanwhile let’s stop crudely assigning the violence done by communist regimes down to their atheism. 

  2. 2
    Dionisio says:

    You argue that some of the worst atrocities in history were done in the name of religion,…

    The worst atrocity in history was done in the name of religion:

    The crucifixion of Christ Jesus.

    Everything else in history can be related (directly or indirectly, explicitly or implicitly) to that central event, regardless of whether we agree or not.

    But what religion is that?

    The natural human condition: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” [Jeremiah 17:9 (ESV)].

    Amazingly, the worst atrocity ever committed by humans was divinely purposed to be the main ingredient of the only remedy to our otherwise incurable spiritual malady.

    Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

    Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

    Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

    [Romans 13:5-14 (ESV)]

  3. 3
    SteRusJon says:

    I am a Christian (unorthodox, but a follower of Christ Jesus nontheless) and I get ticked off with the thesis that atheists, as a group, are somehow more evil than religious groups. The tendency to do harm to others is a human condition. The actualization of that tendency is well correlated to the power available to the take action. While religious persons may have one more reason to not harm others (conversely, atheist have one less reason), the motivations that drive ones intolerances of others are so numerous as to render that single difference minuscule. Fact is, whether Pope or dictator, persons act in accord with what is in their heart. If it be selfishness and intolerance, they will do selfish and hurtful things to those they cannot tolerate if they are in a position to work their will. If the heart contains compassion and empathy for others, the power to affect ones will results in selfless actions that work to the benefit of others. Such, even if atheistic, have a “law unto themselves” that should be acknowledged and congratulated. I suspect that the number of victims of religious despots was not limited by their religious principles of love but by the limits to their power or they simple ran out of those they could not tolerate.

    Stephen

  4. 4
    Silver Asiatic says:

    I don’t think sociology every fully arrives at “causation”. It’s always probabilistic (and one of the best fields for survey-research of a population).

    The presumptive argument might work better in this case:

    Atheism. For a powerful leader (Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Stalin) why not totalitarian mass-murder?
    Christianity. For a powerful leader, why not totalitarian mass-murder?

    For the atheist, in metaphysical or Darwinist terms, there is no reason “why not”. There are actually many very good reasons to be a totalitarian mass-murderer in that context, and those notorious mass-murderers were acting consistently with those good reasons.

    The same is not true from a Christian context (and for other religions).

  5. 5
    markf says:

    #4 SA

    For the atheist, in metaphysical or Darwinist terms, there is no reason “why not”

    There are plenty of reasons why not – but that is a whole different argument.

  6. 6
    Seversky says:

    1. The atheist’s argument that “correlation does not equal causation” is factually mistaken. Hitler and Stalin may have both had mustaches, but Mao Zedong and Pol Pot, who were both totalitarian atheistic dictators that killed millions of people, did not. (Mao, by the way, is estimated to have killed 70 million people, making him the worst killer of all time.)

    I would argue that “correlation does not equal causation” is a valid caution. In the case of Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung and Pol Pot, for example, I suspect we could find many more points of correlation than causation. As markf pointed out, they all wore trousers. I doubt that a common item of clothing led to the death of millions, though. On the other hand, a cursory glance at their respective biographies on Wikipedia reveals that they all had a religious upbringing of one sort or another at least in their early lives. It is slightly – although no more than slightly – more plausible to argue that an early revulsion against improperly-taught religion led to the death of millions. Three of those men were certainly atheist when they committed their atrocities. Hitler’s position is more ambiguous but I would argue that the millions who died at their behest were victims of political ideologies that were incidentally atheist. They were killed for reaons of National Socialism or Marxism/Leninism rather than atheism.

    2. Although it is true that correlation does not equal causation, a robust, reliable correlation between A and B that holds in a variety of different circumstances does strongly support the hypothesis of a causal link between A and B. The question we then have to ask is whether A is causing B, B is causing A, or something else (call it C) is causing both A and B, together.

    And one factor found in most if not all the atrocities committed down the ages is that the perpetrators are inspired by a conviction of the Absolute and Unchallengeable Truth of the cause or belief in whose name those acts were done. The human predilection for absolutism, the craving for certainty is the culprit, if there be just one.

    3. The atheist’s argument proves too much. I could say that amoralism, or moral nihilism (defined as the belief that nothing is intrinsically moral or immoral) hasn’t caused any wars either, insofar as no-one has gone to war in the name of amoralism. Is anyone going to seriously argue that amoralism doesn’t cause human rights atrocities?

    This is a good point at which to emphasize that atheism does not entail amoralism or immorality. Atheists recognize just as well as anyone else the value to a society of moral codes which protect the rights, interests and well-being of its members. The only real difference between atheist and religious moralities is that atheists can’t claim divine authority for theirs.

    Also, I need hardly point out that many human rights atrocities, certainly those perpetrated in the name of a religion, have been committed by people who believed they were acting fully in accordance with the morality of their chosen faith. For example, does anyone doubt that the ISIS fighters who behead Western hostages on video believe they are fully justified in doing what they do? And they are but the most recent instance of such immoral moral behavior.

    4. The atheist in Inman’s cartoon uses the word “cause” in too narrow a sense: according to him, A causes B if and only if A makes B happen. But A can be the cause of B in another sense: as an enabler of B, which makes the occurrence of B more likely. It is in this sense that amoralism can legitimately be said to cause violations of human rights: someone who thinks that nothing is inherently wrong will have no problem with the idea of perpetrating a crimes against humanity, whereas someone who believes in objective moral values will.

    If amoralism is neither necessary nor sufficient to account for human rights violations then, in my view, it is stretching the meaning of the word to describe it as a “cause”. As for objective moral values I regard the concept as incoherent but I suspect, although I prove, that atrocities have been committed by people who believed that the morality by which those acts were authorized was objective in some sense. I also believe that there many people, both atheist and believer, who have refrained from committing some hideous act because of their personal moral beliefs.

    5. The track record of atheistic regimes in the twentieth century has been pretty appalling. One could plausibly argue, on the basis of that track record, that atheism has been an enabling cause of violence.

    While no one is defending the track record of the atheist regimes of the twentieth century, one can plausibly argue that the track record of the exclusively religious regimes of the preceding nineteen centuries was just as bad taken in toto. In fact you could say it’s worse if only on the grounds that it’s a much longer rap-sheet.

    7. Citing largely atheistic countries like Sweden and Denmark as counter-instances to the claim that atheism causes human rights atrocities is a bad move: while these countries may have a preponderance of atheists, their governments don’t make any systematic attempts to indoctrinate their citizens with atheism. Regimes that endeavor to turn their subjects (especially children) into atheists have (by and large) been the most horrific violators of human rights.

    I have some sympathy with Richard Dawkins’s view that indoctrinating children with any religious or political ideology is a form of abuse. We know of the atrocities committed in World War II by the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend whose manpower was made up largely of members of the Hitler Youth movement. We also have evidence that Muslim children are being indoctrinated with an extreme form of Islam in some Pakistani madrassars. Would this also be an apt place to quote the Jesuit motto “Give me the child until seven, and I will give you the man.”?

    8. The fact that certain toxic forms of religion can cause terrible acts of violence (see here for one author’s highly controversial take on the subject) in no way undermines the thesis that atheism is capable of enabling equally bad acts of violence.

    Allowing for my reservation above concerning enabling causes, I agree.

    9. In any case, the logical way to establish whether atheism causes acts of violence is to compare the suffering caused by governments that promote atheism with the suffering caused by governments that don’t, using as large a historical database as possible, and then attempting to remove any anomalous complicating factors, so that the ceteribus paribus assumption (“other things being equal”) holds properly.

    Good luck with finding an objective scale with which to measure suffering.

    The fundamental problem with attributing blame for most of the world’s atrocities to atheism is that people don’t usually do something for no reason. Atheism is a lack of belief in a God. People don’t fly planes into skyscrapers or strap on explosive vests and blow themselves up because they don’t believe in anything. They do it because they have an absolute belief in the positive cause of their faith and probably only such an utter certainty enables people to go to such extreme lengths. The same can be said for political ideologies like Nazism or Communism.

    I would agree that atheism would not prevent a psychopath or sociopath from committing their chosen crimes so you could argue that it enables them to commit them. In my view, it’s not a justifiable complaint however because atheism of itself does not entail either morality or immorality nor does it make any claim to. So, to the psychopath who argued that he was free to kill me because, being atheist, he had no reason not to, I would say that I preferred not to be killed, that the overwhelming majority of our society agreed because they also preferred not to die at the whim of a psychopath and together we were not just going to provide him with a reason not to kill me, we were physically going to prevent it, even to the point of killing him if necessary. As I see it that’s where morality originates. Not in atheism, certainly, but not in religion either.

  7. 7
    StephenA says:

    So, to the psychopath who argued that he was free to kill me because, being atheist, he had no reason not to, I would say that I preferred not to be killed, that the overwhelming majority of our society agreed because they also preferred not to die at the whim of a psychopath and together we were not just going to provide him with a reason not to kill me, we were physically going to prevent it, even to the point of killing him if necessary. As I see it that’s where morality originates.

    That sounds… very much like might makes right. The only ‘ought’ on offer is ‘You ought not kill me because society will punish you if you do.’

  8. 8
    Mung says:

    poor mark f.

    left grasping at straws. again.

    http://lmgtfy.com/?q=regime

  9. 9
    markf says:

    #8 Mung

    I have not met lmgtfy before – so thanks for that. But what on earth has it to do with anything I wrote? I didn’t dispute the meaning of the word “regime”. I just tried to clarify what aspects of an atheist regime VJ was getting at.

    If you think anything I wrote is wrong then say so and why.

    Also thanks SRJ at #3 – your common sense is much appreciated.

  10. 10
    Robert Byers says:

    Satan suggests the evil and mankind consents. The rest is just justifying evil.
    so evil can come from FALSE religions and atheists and all points in between.
    however a belief in a Creator would restrain the intelligent man from doing wrong. no belief would , like in a curvem make evil more likely.
    Thats why the English world did less evil then anyone else.
    More public serious religion restrained us.
    All evil people are Godless even if not atheists.

  11. 11
    vjtorley says:

    Hi everyone,

    Thank you all for your comments. I’ll be back in about 24 hours, when hopefully I’ll have time to reply then.

  12. 12

    Denmark and Sweden are running on the fumes of a Christian past. They are post-Christian, but in a sense they still have a Christian influence from previous generations. We know what the world looked like pre-Christianity. The Vikings from these areas raped and pillaged.

    Now, did everyone in a Christian area become great people and put away their old ways completely? No. But the old ways were at lest mitigated.

    Could you imagine a world without William Wilberforce for instance?

  13. 13
    Robert Byers says:

    geoffrobinso
    i agree with you. Europe is still living off the interest of a christian, Protestant really, civilization. These Scandinavian lands are case in point.
    Its no different then a child being like their parents yet not like them because of the motives that made the parents.
    We inherit everything. Nothing organic,

  14. 14
    wallstreeter43 says:

    To say that atheism had very little influence on these brutal genocidal governments is ridiculous . The Soviet Union had the league of militant atheists which practically went door to door persecuting and killing nit only Christians but all religions . I mean they were called the league of militant atheists , how much more obvious do u need them to be .

    In China even now you can be killed by making a bible study in your own home!!

    In a worldview where we are simply pieces of meat that came together through millions of years of chance and chemical interaction , why would anyone value human life as sacred ??? On the contrary if they acted in accordance to their atheism ,mthis existence is all there is and they should do all they need to do to stay alive and stay happy as long as they can, and it that involved killing a few billion people , why the heck not ??????

    And they can’t call upon an objective moral law giver , since they don’t believe there is one .

    I have always believed that the only atheists that love honestly according their worldview are nihilists ,the rest are in denial.

  15. 15
    Mung says:

    mark, always glad to find I’ve contributed to someone’s advancement into the modern world!

    You said: “The claim that atheist regimes cause a lot of violence could mean several things:”

    That depends on the meaning of “regime.”

    markf: (3 ) the population is mostly atheist

    How does a mostly atheist population qualify as a regime?

    Is there even such a thing as a mostly atheist population?

  16. 16
    Mung says:

    right. mf is busy. can’t be bothered.

  17. 17
    Mung says:

    Mark Frank: “The claim that atheist regimes cause a lot of violence could mean several things.”

    Assuming you’re the typical ID “critic,” it could mean that “atheist regimes cause a lot of non violence.”

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