Violence, Religion, and Atheism, Part One

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Richard Dawkins says there is a logical path from religion to violence, but not from atheism to violence. He comes stunningly close to the truth, while yet missing it altogether.

This comes from somewhere after minute 75 in a debate (video here) with John Lennox in Birmingham, Alabama on October 3, 2007. Dawkins said,

I think there is a logical path from religion to doing terrible things…. There's a logical path that says, if you really, really, really believe that your God, Allah, whoever it is, wants you to do something–and you'll go to heaven, you'll go to Paradise if you do it–then it's possible for an entirely logical, rational person to do hideous things.

I cannot conceive of a logical path that would lead one to say, “Because I am an atheist, therefore it is rational for me to kill, or murder, or be cruel, or do some horrible thing.” I can easily see that there are plenty of individuals who happen to be atheists, maybe even individuals who have some other philosophy which incidentally happens to be associated with atheism, but there is no logical path.

Those young men who bombed in the London subway and the buses, those 19 men who flew planes into various targets in the United States in September of 2001, they were not psychopaths, they were not downtrodden ignorant people; they were well-educated rational people who passionately believed they were right. They thought they were righteous, they thought they were good, by the lights of their religion they were good. The same thing could be said of the hideous things done by the Taliban….

These people believe deeply in what they are doing. And it follows logically, once you grant them the premise of their faith, then the terrible things that they do follow logically. The terrible things that Stalin did, did not follow from his atheism, they followed from something horrible within him…. You will not do terrible deeds because you are an atheist, not for rational reasons; you may well for very rational reasons do terrible things because you are religious.

How can he be so right and so wrong at the same time? There's not one word in here that I disagree with—and yet he has missed everything.

Part of the problem lies in what he was trying to prove. I cut the quote short; you see: the next thing he said was, “That's what faith is about.” So it's about faith vs. atheism, which for Dawkins means irrationality vs. rationality. I'll come back to the difficulties that poses in a moment.

Here's what he gets right: twisted beliefs will lead to twisted actions; and if one's twisted belief includes certainty of eternal reward for doing evil, then one will very likely do evil. Therefore religion can be very dangerous. Dawkins's logic on this is impeccable, and it is accompanied by way too much empirical proof. Strongly held beliefs often motivate horrendous violence.

And his analysis of Stalin is spot-on, too. Atheism didn't tell him to murder millions. The terrible things he did flowed “from something horrible within him.”

Nevertheless there is something way too convenient going on here. It's centered in five questions that Dawkins gets wrong:

  1. What is faith?
  2. What is atheism?
  3. What is evil?
  4. What motivates it?

    These four questions all point to a final one, the one that really matters:

  5. What's the solution for evil in the world?

What is Faith?

Dawkins defines religious faith as belief without evidence. Ironically, if that were the proper definition it would identify Dawkins himself as a man of faith: he believes it without any evidence.

Now of course there are people who cannot articulate reasons for their belief. There are entire religions whose beliefs rest on shaky evidential grounds—Mormonism is one. Dawkins apparently thinks that since that's the case for some faith, therefore it is true of all faith. This is nothing but silliness. (I didn't say his logic was always impeccable. Or even usually.) There is junk science: does that mean all science is junk? Similarly there is more than one kind of faith.

There's so much that could be said about—I feel almost guilty letting most of it pass by—but let me focus narrowly on what's most relevant here. Faith is not just about why one believes or the way one believes, as Dawkins supposes; it is also about what one believes. Some religions believe in violence. Some believe in passivity and resignation. Biblical Christianity believes in doing good, and avoiding aggression and retaliation.*

So on biblical Christianity, it is impossible for anyone to think he is righteous while taking initiative to harm others. The “hideous” evil Dawkins ascribes to faith-thinking may be possible with some versions of faith; of that I have no doubt. It could even be the fruit of a mistaken, twisted sort of “Christianity” that is a counterfeit of the real thing.

But it is not possible in the faith of biblical Christianity, for what biblical Christianity teaches us to believe—the faith it calls on us to hold—is that it is good to do good and not to do evil.

*Some even believe that biblical Christianity believes in avoiding all violence, including that which is undertaken for self-defense. On that I disagree: violent action for self-protection can in many circumstances be morally justifiable.


I'm adapting and re-posting several of my pre-WordPress blog entries. This series is an expansion of an article I wrote in October of 2007.