One of the lynchpins of the Third Reich was the “science” of eugenics. The conflation of genetics and culture justified an organized assault on disadvantaged minorities that spread to those that spoke out against their annihilation.
I find it hard to escape this precedent in reading Kenneth Krause’s “Religion, Violence and Terrorism” (Skeptic Vol 20, No.1, pp 48-56). The primary defect of Krause’s analysis is to reason backwards from his conclusion, which is militantly anti-religious. This leads to pseudo-sociological analysis that ignores the historical context that inflames conflict between the Muslim world and the West. Moderating those passions is going to require analysis that is both better and more honest than Krause presents.
For example, on page 49, Krause advances David Eller’s theory of violence as a basis for an argument that religion contains all the characteristics that foment violence. However, Krause fails to notice that the characteristics of religion are generically characteristics that cause believers to “expand both the scope and scale of their activities.” In my reading of history, that has included much that must be upheld as good, such as caring for the disadvantaged and speaking out against injustice all over the world.
What matters, then, is what religious leaders actually teach their followers, and whether scripture provides a sound basis for exposing immoral teaching. In substantiating his opinions (pp. 50-52) regarding the uniquely perverse nature of the traditions of Abraham, Krause cherry-picks from the most objectionable passages, failing to recognize that the exhortations he decries, when implemented methodically, are reported in scripture to have resulted in the destruction of the community of believers. Applying the discipline of anthropology, honest treatment of the religious edicts of the Old Testament would also recognize numerous occasions on which God decried the extent to which he suffered from the perfidy of the religious and political elites. This should be taken, by the mature reader, as an indication that human political ambitions corrupted the practice of the religion, which obviously would best be implemented by subordinating scripture to political ends. This is known to have occurred in documented history – so how could we not expect it to have occurred when the elites had complete control of the holy word?
Finally, Krause avoids the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, who overthrew the religious justification for violence and eviscerated all dualistic systems of judgment (not only “good and evil”, but all legal codes that purport to categorize us as “guilty” or “innocent”) with edicts that we are to treat every interaction with people as an opportunity to create strength in them. Jesus’s exhortations reiterate the wisdom of the judgment upon Cain: our Darwinian heritage makes moral conduct difficult. Rather than destroying those that fail, we should give them the opportunity to pass on the lessons they have learned.
In summary, Krause’s scriptural analysis of the traditions of Abraham suffers terminally from confirmation bias. He seeks out passages that support his thesis, and ignores all others. Worse, he advances his selections and interpretations as typical dogma, when in fact I have never heard these passages used as moral guidance in any American church, synagogue or mosque. At least in the developed world, the religious have moved on. So should Krause.
The remainder of the article presents survey data that substantiates the oppressive opinions of the populations of largely Muslim nations. The glaring defect of this study is its failure to consider other factors that might contribute to the attitudes expressed by the sampled population. For example, at the recent Skeptics Conference, Ian Morris noted that foraging societies tolerate violence to a far greater degree than do fossil-fuel cultures. Islam is the religion of the poor: many of the nations in the survey data lived at or near foraging levels until last century. That lifestyle was obliterated when a large number of these nations were granted enormous oil wealth, which has given their monarchical elites the means to propagate their social codes in an attempt to secure stability in the face of sophisticated social critiques brought back by youth educated in Western universities. We should not be surprised that these nations, granted sudden and enormous wealth, should use it to propagate their social standards. That includes, as happened during the Spanish Inquisition, support for religious “scholars” willing to corrupt scripture to justify violent oppression (Wahabbism, which foments the most virulent extremism, is a recent construction of the Saudi monarchy). I would argue that the failure to consider this and other social factors (such as the organized attempt by Western-educated elites to uproot Muslim culture in the 20th century) leaves readers of Krause’s article vulnerable to the classic misattribution of “correlation as causation.”
My disappointment is that this shoddy piece of analysis was published by an organization that claims to promote science.
Thank you, I enjoyed reading that. In many of my conversations with atheists, there is this underlying belief that religion causes wars and violence, so if you remove all religion from society, you will allegedly remove all conflict. It’s a maddening bit of cognitive dissonance because it fails to take any other factors into account.
Argh! The problem you identify is so frustrating to me, I don’t know where to start. Escalatory monotheism is a real problem (you know – our god is the best most perfect god that could possibly exist) and leads away from a practical assessment of the condition of human nature and how divine love is at work to strengthen it. This has led to a terrible dilution of religious experience. When they’re not just being smarty-pants libertarians, I am afraid that many atheists see religious institutions as a dead weight, and are consciously involved in creating a rationale for their annihilation. In Spirituality without Religion: Hope or Hoax, I addressed the defect in this view from the perspective of the individual growing into spiritual maturity – here I began to dig into the larger social issues.