Sunday, May 13, 2007

Atheism v. Religion: The false dichotomy?

Isn't atheism v. religion a false dichotomy? Shouldn't atheism and theism be paired instead? Won't that erradicate some of the ridiculous arguments being tossed about?

Personally, I think the answer to all three is yes. Atheism is lacking a belief in deities or actively believing there are none. Theism is belief in a deity or deities, with no qualifications as to the nature of those deities. They are naturally opposed.

On the other hand, it seems the atheism v. religion dichotomy places the answer to a single question in opposition to complete worldviews encompassing positions on perhaps thousands of questions. It also assumes that the term religion excludes any worldview in which there is no deity. Yet there are atheistic religions like Jainism, Bhuddism, Confucianism and Taoism.

What are the effects of this false dichotomy? A phrase oft-repeated in a variety of media (from academic journals to the blogosphere to news stories/documentaries on religion ad infinitum) is "No one has ever killed in the name of atheism."

This statement is intended to invoke the murders committed in the name of various deities or justified in religious language, a product not of theism but of complete theistic worldviews. When defenders of religion, also assuming this false dichotomy, call up the acts of Stalin, Mao, Hitler, or the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers (the world's first suicide bombers), the response is "but it wasn't in the NAME OF ATHEISM" as if this easily refutes the point. (This little tit for tat has gone on long enough that when a defender of religion enters a discussion amongst atheists, someone is bound to ridicule his having invoked or not invoked these "spectres".) Both sides ignore the fact that no one has EVER killed in the name of theism either.

On a preliminary look, if you can count a good two years of research as preliminary, this false dichotomy benefits the atheist side of the debate, allowing some atheists to skirt behind mere technicalities and weakening any theistic and/or religious defender that concedes the false dichotomy. Some benefit is given to the theistic/religion side when the false dichotomy permits them to pretend that an atheist can claim no system or philosophy from which morality can be derived.

The fact is that just as one can follow a variety of theistic religions and belong to any number of sects within those religions, one can follow a variety of atheistic philosophies/religions. Many have been killed "in the name of" both theistic and atheistic worldviews for both religious and secular goals. Yes, it seems silly to many to think of an atheist calling out "in the name of noone" when committing a murderous act, but again, the opposite would be a theist calling out "in the name of an unnamed, abstract deity or deities", as theism itself gives no name or characteristics to the deity or deities.

Unfortunately, determining the causative link between ideology and action leads us to murky territory. Human individuals and human societies are often caught up in a complex dance between internal dynamics and external circumstance. One to one relationships between cause and effect would seem limited in such an environment.

Let us concede that a Palestinian suicide bomber prays to Allah before embarking on his mission and calls out his name as he dies. Is he committing this act merely because he believes in Allah and the promise of paradise? Is there a one to one relationship? It would seem that in determining the causes of the suicide bombers act, we'd have to look beyond what he calls out when he dies or what he thinks will happen once he's dead.

In the case of the Palestinian suicide bomber specifically, we would have to look at the fact of the Israeli occupation, the denial of a Palestinian state and thus Palestinian self-determination, the dearth of strong Palestinian leaders, the absence of "normal" means like democracy or a standing military, etc. Would Palestinians use suicide bombers if they had a functioning state and a standing military? Would they use them if the Israelis withdrew the occupation completely or conceded to a power-sharing agreement with the Palestinians? Would they use them if they felt they had the means to effectively alter their future via peaceful protest and the ballot box? Could groups like Hamas so readily recruit the young if they lived full, contented lives in a free society?

We could see any number of situations theoretically eliminating the use of suicide bombing or at least marginalizing those who use it as Western societies have marginalized our own violent extremists. None of these included the elimination of Islam. To be completely honest, however, we must consider Islam's role.

Although Islam itself is far more complex than the Islamist straw man, we can concede that Islamists quote the Koran and the Hadith, that they believe they will be rewarded in the afterlife, and that they believe that they are on a holy mission. Would suicide bombers living in the same circumstances be more or less likely to commit these acts if they were simply Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, atheists, etc.? Probably not. Would they have need of these justifications if the circumstances of recent history were different? Probably not.

Survey both current events and the course of human history and we see that at worst, religion/ideology provide justification for those acts which have a variety of motives and causes. The justification will be religious or secular, theistic or atheistic depending upon the identity of the participants, the nature of the cause, the nature of the enemy, the group's goals, etc. Often, however, religion/ideology are minor compared to circumstances and goals. In order to meet a set of goals in a set of circumstances, humans will always provide justification, regardless of religion or ideology. Compare if you will, the case of the Soviets and the Palestinians.

The Bolsheviks did not invoke Christianity. Hamas will not call upon communist ideology. Obviously, communists invoke Marx and Muslims invoke the Koran. Both "causes" arose organically from people in a position of weakness and oppression when compared to the strength and resources of the enemy: Russians suffering under the despotic rule of the Czars, Palestinians suffering under the unjust Israeli occupation. Both must invoke justifications for setting aside "normal" codes of behavior under "extraordinary circumstances" for a "noble" cause and "justifiable" goals.

Both have no problem finding them, even if they must twist the teachings of Marx or Mohammed to do it. (As Orwell describes the Soviet evolution in "Animal Farm," some rules get erased/ignored while others get changed to fit the moment.) In the absence of communism/Islam, both could simply call upon "objective" justifications like necessity or self-defense. Secular, democratic states like the United States generally justify their bad acts in just this way.

Scientific studies have long delved into the human capacity to revert to brutality in the right circumstances: from being willing to "shock" a person "to death" because a doctor says so or committing acts of horrible brutality against "prisoners" in a simulated prison environment. These along with historical data seem to show that circumstance is far more important than ideology/religion.

Does an expectation of an afterlife on the part of the Palestinians change the equation? Are they more likely to accept death than atheist Bolsheviks? No. Afterlife or not, all who believe themselves caught up in an epic struggle for freedom, justice, the construction of an ideal society, dignity, honor, etc. have a certain expectation of immortality according to their own terms. Whether they die to achieve paradise or die to reinvigorate their cause or die to make the world a "better" place for their descendants, they are expecting a continuation of their life after death, either in a continued existence or a continued effect. Whether they merely risk death or seek it seems to make little difference to this fact.

Ultimately, it seems that religion or ideology, atheism or theism, we are left with human behavior. No ideology, no religion, no ism can separate us from the enduring reality of our humanity, in both its best aspects and its worst.

*Author's Note: This is just a rough sketch of my points. The book will go into much more in the way of dates and figures and citations.

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