Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Wars Aren't Started For Religious Reasons

Victor Reppert makes a plea for the sake of honesty and historical accuracy: Religion is not responsible for most wars- can people stop repeating this nonsense?  Fair enough.  I think we should all strive for honesty and historical accuracy.  And of course, he's right - as long as you understand what is meant by the term 'responsible for'.  He cites an article by anthropologist Scott Atran, who says "the chief complaint against religion — that it is history’s prime instigator of intergroup conflict — does not withstand scrutiny."  And aside from the fact that this isn't really the chief complaint against religion, he's correct.  Wars are started for many reasons besides religion.  But it would not be correct to say that religion plays no major role in the conduct or sustainment of warfare.  So we need to understand Victor's plea in a nuanced way.  It's not as if religion has nothing to do with it.

It is true that most wars have not been instigated for primarily religious reasons.  Paul Goodman, social sciences contributor to OwlCation, describes The 8 Main Reasons for War, and religion is only one of them.  Others include economic gain, territorial gain, and civil strife or rebellion.  But to be honest, I don't often hear people claiming that most wars are started for religious reasons.  Some may believe that, but what we are more likely to hear is an echo of George Carlin's famous line, “More people have been killed in the name of God than for any other reason.”  And that's not exactly the same thing.  It is certainly the case that many have been killed for religious-based reasons, but not necessarily as part of a war that was started primarily religious reasons.  So it's important to distinguish between two different questions.  1: What causes wars to start? and 2: How many people are killed for religious reasons?  If you address the second of these questions by answering the first, then you are committing the straw-man fallacy.

But Victor wouldn't do that, would he?  Actually, he cherry-picked one paragraph in Atran's article that says most wars are started for reasons other than religious ones.  That article (well worth reading) is certainly not a polemic against religion, but it does present a scientifically-based view of the role religion plays in in warfare.
Although surprisingly few wars are started by religions, once they start, religion — and the values it imposes — can play a critical role. When competing interests are framed in terms of religious and sacred values, conflict may persist for decades, even centuries. Disputes over otherwise mundane phenomena then become existential struggles, as when land becomes "Holy Land." Secular issues become sacralized and nonnegotiable, regardless of material rewards or punishments. - Atran
The truth of the matter is that even wars that are not religious in their origins are often fought at least partially on religious grounds.  It may not be so easy for a head of state to motivate his countrymen to fight a war for the sake of his own territorial ambitions, or because he has a personal vendetta against the leader of another country.  But if he can appeal to their religious sympathies, and frame the other side as an enemy of God, or as a threat to the tribal group that is firmly established by the nation's common religious affiliation, then he has invoked a powerful motivating factor to enlist their support.  To this day, we may still debate the real reasons for George Bush's desire to go to war with Iraq in 2003, but it surely wasn't primarily religious.  Still, when the US invaded Iraq, Saddam Hussein may have feared that his fellow Iraqis would greet the invaders a liberators.  So he appealed to religion, and framed the war as a religious conflict.
The aggression that the aggressors are carrying out against the stronghold of faith is an aggression on the religion, the wealth, the honor and the soul and an aggression on the land of Islam - Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf
So if Victor really wants to take an honest look at the question of how many people are killed in the name of God, he can't simply evade the question by noting that most wars aren't started for religious reasons.  It would be much more honest to look at how many wars are fought for the sake of religion, regardless of how they got started (in addition to how many die for religious reasons that aren't due to warfare).  The answers to those two questions are not at all the same.  And I suspect Victor wouldn't be so pleased by a more honest answer.

And while we're on the topic of people being killed in the name of God, I find it quite ironic that Victor wants to dismiss this as "nonsense", while also perpetuating the trope that there are "mass killings in the name of atheism".  Talk about nonsense.  This is something I have addressed before.  People aren't motivated to kill because of their lack of belief in God.  They are motivated by their ideologies, be they Communism, or religion, or something else.  People fight and die for those ideologies.  It's about time for Victor to face up to the truth.