TIA: The War Delusion

Having proved to his own satisfaction that there are no theists in foxholes, Vox continues in the same theme in Chapter 6, “The War Delusion.” His main point is that religion is not the primary cause of most wars, which is perfectly reasonable and accurate. Unfortunately, he pretends that Harris and Dawkins and company are claiming that eliminating religion would eliminate war, which is a pretty blatant straw man. (He even admits at one point that Harris and Dawkins “[never] state that they believe religion is the direct and primary cause of war.”) And even though it’s only a straw man, he still seems to feel compelled to resort to the strategy of oversimplifying, citing a bunch of facts which are inconsistent with the oversimplification, and then claiming to have won the debate. I’ll give him good grades in rhetoric for subtlety and cleverness, but in the end, he still fails to address the question of what role religion does play in human conduct and conflict.

As an example, consider this analysis of war in the 1400’s.

To cite a more recent example, historians record that all of Europe anticipated that Charles VIII of France, upon coming into his own in 1491 (he had been subject to an eight-year regency upon inheriting the crown at thirteen), would launch a military campaign because that was what was expected of young, energetic kings with armies. And within three years, Charles had invaded Italy and laid the groundwork for thirty years of war on the Lombard plain. This was not war caused by religion or even economics; it was simply war for war’s sake.

The best that can be said about this analysis is that it accomplishes Vox’s rhetorical goals by allowing him to deny that religion had anything to do with this war. But notice, he gives no consideration to the role of religion in defining the culture that set those warlike expectations for kings: no discussion of the concept of “the divine right of kings,” no consideration of the Church’s cooperation with and support of these cultural standards, no examination of how much an individual soldier might be influenced by what he saw as God’s attitude towards disloyalty, or by the idea that death is just a gateway to a new and better life, etc. After his earlier discussion about how great the Middle Ages were and how enlightened medieval society was (religiously and scientifically), it seems like it would be worth asking how European society, dominated by Christian theology for 1,000 years or so, could have arrived at the place where it was regarded as normal and natural for kings to launch unprovoked wars simply for the sake of waging war. But Vox never asks this question, because his goal is not to consider how religion did influence war, his goal is to prove that it didn’t.

Vox lists 123 wars which the authors of the Encyclopedia of War “saw fit to categorize as religious wars for one reason or another.” Compared to all the wars that have ever been fought, 123 is a fairly small number, just under 7% by Vox’s calculations. And yet, is it even that high? Had he wanted to, he could easily have taken each of these wars and found other, non-religious factors that were also involved, thus “proving” that none of these wars was really caused by religion. He even gives us an example in his footnotes on this list:

Ironically, the Seventh War of Religion was not a religious war. The Encyclopedia of Wars has this to say: “The Seventh War of Religion in 1580, also known as the ‘Lovers’ War’ had little to do with hostilities between the Catholics and Protestants. Instead fighting was instigated by the actions of Margaret, the promiscuous wife of Henry IV of Navarre.”

What Vox is doing is not investigating the role of religion in war, but instead creating an artificial definition of “religious war” that is so narrow virtually no war qualifies. But of course, as he himself says on page 97, “it would be foolish to insist that religion never causes war.” If he applied the same analysis to these 123 wars as he does to all the other wars where he says religion was not involved, it would give away his game, because he’d have to insist that none of these wars were “caused by religion” either. 6.92% is a low enough figure to make it sound like the New Atheists are ridiculous when they associate religion with war, but still high enough to sound reasonably plausible (at least if you want Vox’s argument to be right). Therefore he does not apply the same standards consistently to all wars, because he needs to keep a few around for appearance’s sake. It’s all about plausible deniability.

Another example of a straw man argument is Vox’s mischaracterization of the New Atheists’ observations of religious discord as being merely an “ontological argument.”

An ontological argument is one that depends solely on reason and intuition rather than observation or evidence…

[O]ntological arguments boil down to the idea that if something can be conceived, it therefore must exist. No supporting evidence is necessary, mere reason and intuition suffice to prove the matter…

It is curious, then, that Dawkins, like Sam Harris, so blithely subscribes to an ontological argument in support of the idea that religion is the implicit cause of war.

He goes on to admit that this is not what either man is actually saying, and then accuses them of meaning it anyway. Amazingly, after defining an ontological argument as being one that eschews observation and evidence in favor of pure reason, he then cites several quotes from Dawkins & Co, and then cites the observations and evidence on which their quotes are based.

[T]here is a certain amount of truth in each of the assertions which lead up to the final conclusion. It cannot be denied that religion HAS been known to divide friends and families as well as entire nations. Religion HAS provided a marker by which opposing groups identify each other. War IS fought between divided groups of people bearing different labels; it takes two to tangle. The problem is that merely stringing together three statements that are factually true in some circumstances does not always lead to a logical conclusion.

Let’s play that back in slow motion. Vox claims that the New Atheists are making an ontological argument, i.e. they are claiming to be able to prove, by reason alone without evidence or observation, that religion causes war. He concedes that they do not, in fact, claim that religion causes war, but insists that they mean to imply this because of the evidence and observation they cite as part of their no-evidence ontological argument (which, in fact, is an argument that the New Atheists never actually make). And even though these observations and evidences are “factually true,” you shouldn’t use them to reach the conclusion that religion causes war—which Vox agrees is a conclusion that the New Atheists are not actually stating. In fact, his whole argument here is that he can tell what they mean by the factually-true observations they cite. Only he denies that these facts really do lead to the conclusion he says they lead to. But if that’s so, how can he say that merely citing these observations means that the New Atheists are trying to imply that conclusion?

The problem is not that the factually true observations lead to a false conclusion, but rather that they lead to an undesirable one. Hence Vox’s desire to wave his rhetorical magic wand and turn the atheists’ observations into an ontological argument, in which the evidence and observations simply do not exist. Poof, they’re gone. An ontological argument doesn’t have any. Once you’ve disposed of the facts, the conclusion becomes a non-issue. Vox (and many of his readers) feel much better.

He then proceeds with a further demonstration of his “oversimplify, contradict, and declare victory” strategy.

Consider the same argument, only this time substituting three similarly valid assertions.

1.Pelicans eat sardines.
2.Pelicans improve the sardine species through aiding natural selection.
3.Natural selection is the mechanism through which evolution occurs.
4.Therefore, pelicans are the implicit cause of evolution.

Now, I’m no evolutionary biologist, but I’m fairly certain that human evolution is not dependent upon pelicans. Or elephant evolution, penguin evolution, or even, for that matter, the intelligent machine evolution that will lead us all into joyous mental union with Gaia in the next three decades. The fourth statement cannot be logically concluded from the preceding three assertions, no matter how much these great rationalist champions of reason would like to pretend it does.

Notice how carefully he chose his words for statement 4, and how he further twists his conclusion in applying it to human evolution. And remember, the atheist quotes he cited correspond only to statements 1, 2, and 3—the conclusion “religion causes war” is an “implied” argument that he’s putting into the atheists’ mouthes, so he gets to make it as contrived and ridiculous as he likes. A rational response to the 3 observations about pelicans and sardines would be to conclude that pelicans play a significant role in the evolution of sardines (and vice versa, if you understand how evolution works). And likewise, even Vox himself can see (though he is quite loathe to admit it) that atheists are making factually correct observations that are consistent with religion having a significant and meaningful role in human behaviors such as war and lesser conflicts. But he doesn’t want to draw reasonable conclusions from factual observations, which is why he deliberately makes statement 4, above, into an unreasonable conclusion. And likewise, he does not worry himself overmuch about what reasonable conclusions might be drawn from the evidence cited by the New Atheists. His sole concern is to find some pretext for rejecting the conclusion as unreasonable, which he does by re-casting their observations as an evidence-free ontological argument.

Vox tries a few other tricks over the course of Chapter 6, such as citing cases where religion was not the cause of various divisions, as though this proved that religion is never the cause of divisions. That’s like observing that Highway 40 does not go to Chicago, and concluding that therefore no highway goes to Chicago. Again, it’s a strawman: Vox is disproving the claim that nothing other than religion ever causes divisions. Well of course there are other causes of division, nobody is claiming differently (except Vox’s straw atheists)! But he needs to be able to defeat something, so he invents arguments that atheists aren’t actually making, and that are only superficially similar to what the New Atheists really say.

One last point I’d like to address: Vox frequently makes the claim/rebuttal that, ok, religion does sometimes cause or contribute to violence, wars, and death, but other factors are worse offenders. It’s as though he thinks that a certain amount of bloodshed and loss of life is acceptable and reasonable in order to enjoy the benefits of living in a world where Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism continue to guide the values and behavior of a large majority of people. I’d say that’s a debatable proposition that has too long been held to an inappropriately low standard of justification. If more people die in car accidents than in air crashes, that does not mean that we should simply accept a certain number of air travel fatalities without subjecting aircraft maintenance and operation to high standards of scrutiny and safety. The question of whether wars can be caused by non-religious factors is entirely irrelevant to the question of whether needless death and suffering can be reduced or eliminated by subjecting religion to more careful and conscientious examination. The death toll is the same for everybody: one each. If religion causes or contributes to even one needless death, good men of conscience ought to find that a matter of deep concern.

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