Friday, September 11, 2009

Religious fanatics and 9/11

Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings. - Victor Stenger

I posted this as my facebook status, fully knowing that it would probably turn into a flame war. And of course, it did. But I wasn't just trying to piss people off - I think this is something people seriously need to think about, especially on 9/11.

A mildly religious friend responded that this wasn't all religion, just the fanatics. This sort of view is a problem, really just a one true Scotsman fallacy. They say, bad people of religion aren't really religious - they're just abusing real religion, which is good. But do you just get to conveniently draw the line between religion and fanaticism so it arbitrarily suits your needs?

You simply cannot deny that so many atrocities have been committed in the name of religion - to do so would be delusional. This is different than a religious person just doing something bad, or someone who happens to be an atheist committing a wrong. There are good and bad people whether you look at theists or atheists, but who has ever heard of killing in the name of atheism? Religion doesn't corrupt all to the point of suicide bombings, but the fact that it occurs at all should make us care.

The thing I find most interesting is that these so called fanatics - the evangelical Biblical literalists, the fundamentalists of Islam - they are the ones most accurately representing their religion. They take their holy books at face value and don't allow for metaphorical interpretations or loop holes. They're not the ones who use doublethink to tell themselves God is good when he's ordering genocides, that slavery is bad even though it's condoned in the Bible, that anal sex doesn't really count as losing your virginity (yay saddlebacking). While I'm glad these people aren't subscribing to archaic views, they're also being hypocritical in saying that certain groups aren't "real" religion.

September 11th certainly was caused because of political reasons, but we cannot ignore the religious aspect. Would these people go fly planes into buildings if there was no reward of eternal afterlife? Would we have had the initial political divide if we didn't have this mentality of Christian nation versus Muslim nation? If anything, being an atheist makes it all seem sadder to me: people who believed in something that doesn't exist died and murdered thousands for a reward that doesn't exist, and the one solace of their families is that they've gone to a better place...which doesn't exist. To say religion played no part in the deaths of thousands of Americans cheapens that tragedy.


  1. Over 10,000? I think that the total killed was around 3,000.

    I get into the "they're not really religion" arguments with my mom sometimes, but if I start asking her what she believes, I can usually boil it all the way down to the golden rule. That's pretty much the only thing she actually will claim out of the Bible. But somehow the people who "aren't really Christians" are the ones who believe everything in the Bible.

  2. Over 10,000? I think you mean over 9,000.

  3. Arbitrarily drawing a line between "real" believers, and others is one of the most irritating arguments I come across, and the most difficult to deal with.

    I've even been in a discussion with someone who tried to convince me that I'm actually a believer, because I am a good person. Even though I deny that God exists, since I'm a good person, my heart must believe. I would continue to complain about this inane nonsense, but I figure most readers here know why it's so ridiculous.

  4. Nicely said. Religion was definitely a key factor in the horrifying events on 9/11 and to deny that is to admit to wearing blinders. I also agree that it's disingenuous to say that religious fanatics are just abusing their religions... or that one religion is more dangerous than another (arguably). Christianity has as many disturbing parts as Islam does... and following either is potentially dangerous.

    As Steven Weinberg said, "With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."

  5. Well, that's because people don't want to believe the truth about these situations. When your entire life, you've been given a religious structure you're told is good, you don't want to feel that it is opposite to good (aka, bad). So you force the concept of "other" onto those who act in the name of religion, but in a way you wouldn't personally care to act.

    It's because religion is such a pliable, personal thing that we're allowed to take advantage of the various holy books and scriptures, drop or emphasize only certain passages. That's the advantage of the system we have now. Beforehand, during the rigid system of religion established by the Catholic Church (as an example), people didn't have this choice.

    So...religion sucks.

  6. This sort of view is a problem, really just a one true Scotsman fallacy. They say, bad people of religion aren't really religious - they're just abusing real religion, which is good. But do you just get to conveniently draw the line between religion and fanaticism so it arbitrarily suits your needs?

    I'm probably gonna get yelled at for this, but I don't think that's fair. I think there is a huge difference between "regular" religious people, and fanatics/extremists/radicals/terrorists/[insert word here]. It sounds like you're just lumping them all into the same basket labeled "Danger: Religion". I do agree that religion is a bad thing and its followers (the "regular" followers) are blinded and misled and essentially conned into conning others in turn, but to compare them to the extremists who happily cause death, pain and destruction on a wide scale with terrorists attacks and such is smearing them all with a huge unjust brush.

    That's just how I feel about it, anyway. "Where do you draw the line", you ask? I feel that's a faulty question in any scenario, one that people should stop using, because you don't "draw the line". That implies setting a global, absolute rule – "anything short of [the line] is okay, anything past it is wrong and punishable". I believe events and situations need to be evaluated and dealt with individually, rather than trying to define global rules which would then be constantly amended and tweaked as new exceptions come up over time.

    Basically, what I'm trying to say is that, yes, religion is bad and wrong, but no, you mustn't bring up the "No True Scotsman" fallacy here because it doesn't apply. For one thing, I don't think I've ever heard anyone, Christian or other, deny that extremists were religious, if that's what you were saying.

    And finally, I'll mirror what previous commenters said and point out that while original reports stated that "as many as ten thousand may be dead" (as in, directly following the event), current tallies rack up to about 3,000.

    Not that a "lesser" number makes the horror of it any less real, though.

  7. Thanks NQ - I have limited Internet so I was working from my faulty memory. I'll edit it when I'm at a real computer

  8. "yay saddlebacking"

    Yay! First time I see that term in the wild. Go memes!

  9. To be fair, the casualty estimates during the day of 9/11 were like 12,000. And still around 4,500 a year later.

  10. @ Joé: The only reason we don't see the wholescale participation in mass murder in our current system of religion is because of the maturation of Christianity (as the prime example) from the strictly-controlled Catholic centre to the multiple sects we see now.

    To see that modern religion can be controlled en masse to a diabolical end, we need only ask Salman Rushdie.

  11. @Veritas:
    So you're saying that if Christianity hadn't "matured" into what it is today, the 70%-or-so of Americans, who are Christian (to whatever extent), would just be happy to go around participating in mass murder? That seems a bit ... pessimistic.

    Also, you can't compare Christians to the sort of animals who went after Rushdie. However bad Christians may be, even they (in general) realize certain things – whipping of women who dare to wear trousers, beheading of political dissenters, and etc. – is utterly insane. Muslims and Islamics have proven themselves, time and time again, to be far more heinous and, well, inhumane than Christians have ever been, at least in the last few hundred years (not that I'm denying how Christian extremism can be horrific as well).

    (And note, of course, that when I say "Christians", I mean the regular people, neither the fundies, radicals, or Vatican/Church.)

  12. Dang, I'd like to rephrase one little bit:

    "Muslims and Islamics have proven, time and time again, to have a capacity for acts that are far more heinous and, well, inhumane, than Christians ever have [...]"

  13. @Joé: Yes, I am saying that. And I'm saying that because that's how it happened. The Crusades were supported whole-heartedly by the average Joe Peon, because he didn't know any better. Nobody of a lower class was privileged enough to know the true politics; nobody of the upper class dared to contradict the pope, and so millions died in the Crusades.

    And I'm not comparing Christians to the people who threatened Rushdie after the fatwa was issued. Islam is a very extreme religion even in its...oh, wait. Islam is 700 years younger than Christianity, mate. Take Christianity back 700 years - the year 1300 - and look at their comparative culture.

    In 1306, Philip IV of France (known as the Fair even though he wasn't) kicked the Jews out of the country and stole their money. An act loved by the populace. In 1307, he captured the Templars and submitted them to the Inquisition. The execution (usually by burning) of the Templars was lauded by the average joe. Jacques de Molay wasn't burned at the stake - he was spitted and roasted alive, slow-cooked, by Philip.

    400 years ago, women who spoke out against their husbands could be branded a witch, or could be forced to wear devices such as the scold's bridle, or worse. I started to do research on other devices, like the horse thing or the breast flayer, and I started getting green at my desk.

    Do I actually need to remind you about how brutal the Inquisition was? Again, it was a very small amount of people actually doing the torture, but just like in Islam, the people at the time thought it was the right thing to do. The history of torturing women (as the example you give) goes right up till around the 1700s.

    Sorry, I don't happen to think that Islam is any different than Christianity was at a comparable time in its development. I just think that it has different methods. They flog their women instead of drowning them to test for witchiness; they throw acid at them instead of inserting a hook into their uterus and disemboweling them.


  14. PS, the Ugh was for having to read about torture, not the argument.

  15. @Veritas:
    I assure you, you do not need to tell me about the atrocities Christianity has committed in the past (which, yes, Christians of then condoned and even took part in when they could). That's why I wasn't talking about the past, but modern-day, Christians. I mean people of the 2009 American society, those who also happen to be Christians. Even if their religion was as retarded as even modern-day Islam is (ie. circa 1300s-era Christianity), do you really think modern Americans could do this sort of stuff?

    Though, admittedly, I may just be launching a huge contradiction here, for if modern Christianity was as bad as it was way back then, then obviously the whole course of American history would've changed, especially these recent, "progressive" years (women's rights, secularization, etc.), so it's all just a huge logical conundrum.

    Basically, what I'm saying is that I can't think of any reasonable, plausible scenario that would incite the majority of Americans, regardless of the minority of fruitcakes, kooks and radicals present, to actually go around "participating in mass murder".

  16. With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. - Steven Weinberg, The New York Times, April 20, 1999

  17. @Joé: What you said was, "in the last few hundred years". I'm trying to make the point that mass inhumanity in Christianity wasn't all that long ago. Anyway, I will (of course) admit that most American Christians are benign and good people. Islam is the major religion currently capable of such acts.

    Modern Americans are a product of the de-dickification of Western and Christian culture, so they wouldn't exist without the changes made to Christianity. I don't actually think such a thing could be brought and shown as acceptable to a majority. Sometimes I wonder about a small but verbal minority, though.

  18. I'm too lazy to see if this has already been said, but the tamil tigers, who pioneered sucide bombings, was a maxist group, thus atheist.

  19. You are braver than I am. I would love to post this as my facebook status, but I already walk a fine line with many people that I don't really want to push over the edge of alienation. If I were your friend on facebook though, I'd certainly give it a thumbs up. =)

  20. Madatheist, The Tamil Tigers were a secular group, but most of them were Hindu. Their reasons for action were political and non-religious. Killing for non-religious reasons is very different than killing in the name of atheism.

  21. I like the "Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings." quote. Another good/relevant one: "I'm not convinced that faith can move mountains, but I've seen what it can do to skyscrapers." -- William H. Gascoyne

    The invocation of "no true Scotsman" is a very good point. That's the kind of mental contortions we have to put ourselves through if we want to convince ourselves that the 9/11 attack shouldn't reflect negatively on religion: The hijackers believed the Qur'an to the letter, therefore they were not true Muslims (a.k.a. the "George W. Bush is more qualified to talk about the true meaning of Islam than Osama bin Laden" fallacy). They were willing to fight and die for what they believed was the highest calling in life, therefore they were "cowards". Craziness.

  22. "I can't think of any reasonable, plausible scenario that would incite the majority of Americans, ... to actually go around "participating in mass murder".
    Read Ordinary Men and The Lucifer Effect. Then come back.

  23. @Uzza:
    Okay, I checked out Ordinary Men. Assuming (reliably) that you're talking about Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (to cite the full title) by Christopher Browning, I don't see what that has to do with what I said. It appears to be about a group of men who had no real choice but to follow orders to kill as they did. There are numerous differences between the men in the dead-end situation they were in, and average, modern-day Americans in our modern socio-political climate.

    As for The Lucifer Effect, I'm unable to pull up much info about it, but what I have read seems to be about the Chip Frederick case, where the man was put under tremendous peer pressure into committing the acts he did. Again, this is a man under huge pressure to follow orders; I was talking about the vast majority of average Americans, in themselves.

    Maybe I just wasn't clear enough. What I meant to say:

    "I cannot imagine a plausible scenario that could lead to the vast majority of Americans, in the America of 2009 with the modern-day socio-political climate, suddenly engaging in mass murder". Large numbers of people just don't start killing others for no reason, and I cannot come up with a good said reason as to why they would, collectively, start killing en masse. I can imagine scenarios leading to riots or mass civil unrest, sure, but not really "mass murder" (as in millions of killings).

    On a sidenote: glad to see you're back and okay (your little musical friend not causing you too much toil, I hope?).

  24. I think the issue is more narrowly authoritarian structures of belief and organization that is behind 9/11 and it's because religion inculcates unjustified authoritarian habits of belief formation, justification, and obedience, and insulation against critical reflection that it is responsible for the atrocities done in specific religions' names. In other words, since religions by their inherent nature train people to accept authoritarian reasoning as good and necessary, it is culpable for setting up the intellectual and institutional infrastructures through which particular bad ideas and practices are sold to particular religious people and unwaveringly adhered to by them.

    The other thing religion does is introduce a superfluous extra point of group differentiation and with natural human grouping comes the risk of hostilities between rival groups. That's human nature. Since religion does not just divide people into groups but does so while defining each group by authoritarian institutions who enforce unjustifiable dogmas as central to group identity and membership, it reinforces groups as perpetually and essentially at odds with each other philosophically by its very nature. The more religious someone is, the more tied to their specific tradition, the more they cut themselves off from any possibility of finding common ground with those who reason outside the dogmatic assertions of their tradition---assertions not even in principle defensible from outside their tradition.

    But these faith related issues are the problem. It's not ritual or meditation or community or an abstract belief in some first cause or ground of all being. All of these means for group building, spiritual happiness, and speculative musing are just harnessed towards the end of burrowing allegiance to the authoritarian faith-based beliefs and practices that are the real door to hatred, regressive irrationalism, unbridgeable parochialism, and violence.

    I develop some of the nuances of how I think we should weigh the various interrelated pros and cons of religion in more nuance in this post I wrote on Robert Wright (among others which that post links to) for any interested.

  25. Some interesting comments here.

    Personally, I can't see a huge amount of difference between fundamentalists of any religion, past or present.

    The only difference is that it's less understandable in this day and age when there are rational alternatives which negate the arguments for such fundamentalism.

  26. Maybe it comes down to what The Jules said, just that the number of fundamentalists in our particular day and age and western religion style is far less than it used to be.

  27. @joe
    The Lucifer Effect
    The whole point Ordinary Men lays out is that no extraordinary forces were at work in getting people to commit atrocities. Both these works lay out exactly the plausible situation you say you can't imagine. Even instrumentalized, in Zimbardo's case.

    'Camels' is spot on, though I would like to add that it is authority that is at issue, not religion, except as religion tends to abuse authority when it gets it.

    Thanks for asking BTW; Beethoven's fine.

  28. In the beginning of 20h century Reds invested considerable effort into destruction of Russian Orthodox Church, which included secularisation of church property, atheistic propaganda and party-orchestrated riots against religious organisations. To put it simply, it was a full-scale atheistic terror.

  29. Ujin, they got rid of religion because religion was seen as an opposing power to their political views, not because they were pro-atheism.

  30. "Muslims and Islamics have proven, time and time again, to have a capacity for acts that are far more heinous and, well, inhumane, than Christians ever have [...]"

    I think that the reason is because most Christians are in democratic secular states and the fundies Muslims are in non-democratic or islamic-states, like Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan before the invasion.

    If we go back in time when there were no republican or democratic institutions, the atrocities in the name of religion increase. So, if the actual christians or muslims don't kill in the name of god is because they value more the democratic principles than the religious values ("my god is the best", "kill the infidels", things like that)

  31. From the "Hard Truth" blog:
    "Atheists believe that teaching kids about the Bible is harmful, but pornography isn't? "

    I don't know which disneyfied version of the bible the author reads but the bible is very pornographic. It covers every conceivable form known to man along with the seven deadly sins thrown in for good measure.
    Then there is this quote:
    "They believe that consenting adults should be left alone to engage in any behavior they choose, with the exception of going to church and believing in g_d*?" *(edit mine)",,,but if people video tape themselves denigrating each other, that's no problem at all?."
    The last time I checked, you cannot denigrate someone who is consensual in the first place and isn't the term "denigrate" subjective?
    Then there is the tirade about Atheists having no morals. Again, the last time I looked morals did not require belief in magical sky pixies to be valid.
    I find myself very moral and I do not need belief in the xtian polytheistic death cult pedophilic homosexual bastard demi-deity to validate my morality.

  32. RE: number of dead because of 9/11

    If you count all who have died because of 9/11 you are getting to 9k Americans, counting the almost six thousand US soldiers. And if you include all the innocents who have died as a direct result of actions by American in alleged retaliation for 9/11 you are looking at over 100k. Plus millions displaced.

    And that was what I "saw" as I turned on the television that morning. I remember collapsing to my knees and asking my son, "Do you know how many people we are going to kill because of this?" /sob