Imagine a World Without Religion. Would It Be Less Violent?

At first glance, one thing that atheism clearly seems to have going for it is this: it doesn’t have any holy books with violence advocating passages in it. Indeed, it doesn’t have any holy books at all.

So score one for atheism?

Not so fast. It is true that under stress or times of war, atheists don’t have a sacred book to pull from the shelf that might justify violent actions. And it is also true that there are obscene passages in the religious books well adapted to times of war (and for a multitude of other situations as well). Religions are, in general, highly adaptive. No doubt. But I’d like you to consider this: Atheism is highly adaptive too. Atheists also have a tradition—the secular tradition—and in times of stress, atheists also reach for ideas, and my question is, “What ideas do they reach for?”

I would suggest that, in times of power struggles or war, an atheist might well turn to Nietzsche, or pull Machiavelli’s The Prince  from the shelf, not as sacred texts, but as guides for action, and the intellectual justifying of actions. An atheist soldier in Afghanistan, for example, might well get quite cynical and start reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (with Kurtz’s dark admonition near the end of the novella to “Kill them all”). Atheism, in other words, may not treat Nietzsche or Machiavelli or Conrad as holy writ, but atheism does not exist in a vacuum. Like religious ideas, secular ideas are sought out in different contexts. Like any religionist, an atheist turns to different secular texts for different life occasions (from marriage to war).

I’m suggesting that atheism is no more or less prone to violence than religion—and that violence advocating secular books, in stressful situations, are just as easily brought from the shelf and used for violent justifications as religious ones. You don’t need holy books to find justifications for violence, you just need to pull down Sam Harris, Hegel, Marx, or Darwin from the shelf and read them in a certain way. My thesis is that a world without religion wouldn’t be any less violent or ethically horrifying than a world with religion. It would be about the same.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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16 Responses to Imagine a World Without Religion. Would It Be Less Violent?

  1. makarios says:

    “it doesn’t have any holy books with violence advocating passages in it”

    Neither does Christianity!

  2. santitafarella says:

    Makarios:

    I don’t know what kind of Chistianity you’re referring to, but most Christian traditions embrace the Hebrew Bible alongside the New Testament, and the Hebrew Bible has a lot of things in it that could be read as advocating violence under certain circumstances. The New Testament also has a few verses that Christians have read to violent effect (an example: one of Jesus’s parables has the phrase, “compel them to come in, that my house may be full”, and people, over the centuries, have read the passage to engage in forced conversions and compulsory church attendance). Here’s another used to violent effect from the New Testament: “Slaves, obey your masters.” And here’s another: “Wives, obey your husbands.” Here’s another: “His blood be upon us and our children” (a justification for the ill treatment of Jews by Christians through the millenia). And need we mention the Book of Revelation?

    —Santi

  3. You just don’t get it, do you? Let me put it in all caps-

    NOT ONE OF THE SO-CALLED NEW ATHEISTS BELIEVES THAT BAD BEHAVIOR OR IRRATIONALITY WILL DISAPPEAR IF RELIGION WERE ELIMINATED TODAY!

    Dawkins doesn’t say it. Dennett doesn’t say it. Harris doesn’t say it. Even Hitchens doesn’t say it. What we do say is that doing away with religion is doing away with the prime legitimizing agent for irrationality and bad behavior. This is not the same thing as saying that it will eliminate those undesirables!

  4. santitafarella says:

    Shamelessly:

    I think that you are oversimplifying and creating a straw man. I think it is clear that the New Atheists believe, both implicitly and explicitly, that the world would be less violent if religion were gone from it. You use the word “disappear.” No sane person would hold that view, obviously. I question the typical New Atheist’s soft thesis (which you express yourself) that religion is a prime source for bad behavior in the world, and a prime source for the legitimizing of bad behavior. By contrast, my thesis is that violence and bad behavior in the world, absent religion, would be about the same, not reduced. Not even a little bit. My thesis is that other rationalizations for evil and violence would be marshalled—and those rationalizations would be secular (as opposed to religious). I might be wrong, but at least it is not the cartoonish thesis that you mischaracterized me as promoting.

    I’d add that Hitler probably didn’t think that getting rid of the Jews in Nazi Germany would solve ALL of Germany’s problems, but he thought it was a big part of the problem. The New Atheists, likewise, think that a world absent Jews (and Christians and Muslims) would be a better world. I disagree. I think the psyche would find other darknesses to replace the darknesses that it might have found in parts of the old religions. Again, I could certainly be wrong. Maybe the triumph of atheism would make the world a global Netherlands of social democracy and peace. I doubt it.

    In support of your side, I do confess that I worry about fundamentalism—and the forms of murderous religion that it spawns. In the contingencies of history, and given that there are nuclear weapons in the world, I’d feel more comfortable about the human future if murderous religion was defanged. I just don’t want to paint with too broad a brush religion qua religion.

    And please notice the title of my post. I didn’t use your word (“disappear”). I simply asked if it would be “less violent.” I say no. What say you of the milder thesis?

    —Santi

  5. zomnificent says:

    “I would suggest that, in times of power struggles or war, an atheist might well turn to Nietzsche, or pull Machiavelli’s The Prince from the shelf, not as sacred texts, but as guides for action, and the intellectual justifying of actions. An atheist soldier in Afghanistan, for example, might well get quite cynical and start reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (with Kurtz’s dark admonition near the end of the novella to “Kill them all”).”

    Well, that’s a fanciful notion. I suppose an atheist could read Joseph Conrad’s fictional book as an instruction manual, but Conrad’s book doesn’t pretend to be one. The Bible does, on the other hand.

    Even that segment of Conrad’s book pales in comparison to the sheer genocide and rape on display in the Old Testament. And the Old Testament sanctifies it.

  6. santitafarella says:

    Zomnificent:

    Excuse me? Why did Oliver Stone base his famous film, Apocalypse Now, on Conrad’s novella? You don’t think that contemporary soldiers might watch a film like Apocalypse Now—or that more intellectual soldiers read Conrad’s book itself—and draw meaning from them in the midst of war?

    Please. And the whole Internet is a Bible. If you are a young atheist, all you have to do is cruise atheist websites for lots of moral and intellectual support in the demonizing of Islam qua Islam (as an obvious example). These sites are every bit as “useful” to an atheist soldier as a passage from the Bible might be for a theist soldier. If you are looking for justifications for war, you don’t need religious books to mesmerize you. A charismatic internet atheist will do just as well.

    —Santi

  7. zomnificent says:

    “You don’t think that contemporary soldiers might watch a film like Apocalypse Now—or that more intellectual soldiers read Conrad’s book itself—and draw meaning from them in the midst of war?”

    You don’t think these so-called intellectual soldiers won’t be smart enough to realize the messages of the movie Apocalypse Now and the book Heart of Darkness are not “Kill them all”?

    “And the whole Internet is a Bible.”

    That’s one of the funniest statements I’ve read in a long time. Please, for who is the internet a “Bible”? Who gets all their moral instruction from random websites they found through Google?

    “If you are a young atheist, all you have to do is cruise atheist websites for lots of moral and intellectual support in the demonizing of Islam qua Islam (as an obvious example).”

    Christian sites demonize Islam to a much greater degree than atheist sites.

    “These sites are every bit as “useful” to an atheist soldier as a passage from the Bible might be for a theist soldier. If you are looking for justifications for war, you don’t need religious books to mesmerize you. A charismatic internet atheist will do just as well.”

    No, because the atheist by default won’t treat them as sacred. There is no notion that the writings of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, or Richard Dawkins are holy scriptures for atheists to live their lives by. They are just the words of lone men, to be taken or discarded.

    I don’t hear many atheists calling for violence against Muslims. Show me where they are.

    I dispute your thesis. The world would be less violent without religion because religions provide certain reasons for violence that are not available to the secular. For instance, the idea that a particular patch of land is sacred.

  8. santitafarella says:

    Zomnificent:

    I’d recommend to you Chris Hedges’s book on the atheist movement (“I Don’t Believe in Atheists”) for numerous examples of atheist agression expressed towards Muslims. Hedges, a former NY Times foreign correspondant with a lot of on the ground experience in Muslim societies, is a very attune writer to this particular aspect of New Atheist culture.

    And human beings join communities and adopt “group think” within those communities, usually at the lead of an alpha male. Dawkins site is no different (in the threads) than a site devoted to the discussion of the views of, say, James Dobson or William Dembski. A community forms around such people, groupthink and policing and reinforcing of biases occur on the threads, and the true believers find a home. At least acknowledge that people who develop internet followings have a responsibility, in times of war, to be careful about how they talk about the “enemy.”

    As for the Internet being a Bible, what I mean is that intellecual justification for any human impulse is just a google search away. If someone wants to find an articulate atheist defense of Islam as a violent religion, it’s literally seconds away. Just as people have always turned to the Bible for verses that might justify their desires to do something (from go to war to keeping slaves), so the Internet becomes an intellectual “verse” search engine for any impulse you may wish to nurture (from war, to theism, to atheism, to Gandhian nonviolence, to racism etc. etc.). If you want to find a community that will intellectually and emotionally support and reinforce your inclinations and prejudices, it’s always just a click away. Just as you can, if your a peaceful person, quote mine the Bible for verses on nonviolence and nonkilling, and ignore the rest, so if you’re a violent person you can find verses that affirm your violence. It is also true of the Internet. You can be a Paul Kurtz atheist, and find Paul Kurtz on the Internet, or you can be a Nietzschean atheist, and find sites that promote the will to power and contempt for Christian “slave” morality. The Internet “verses” you choose to gravitate to are up to you.

    —Santi

  9. zomnificent says:

    I’ve watched Hedges debate Hitchens. I agree with Hedges politically much more than I do with Hitchens, but when it comes to whether Islam is violent or not, I agree more with Hitchens.

    “At least acknowledge that people who develop internet followings have a responsibility, in times of war, to be careful about how they talk about the “enemy.””

    They have a responsibility, but I don’t think any of the leading atheist figures are anywhere near crossing the line. None of them are calling for Muslims to be murdered or wiped out en masse.

    “As for the Internet being a Bible, what I mean is that intellecual justification for any human impulse is just a google search away. If someone wants to find an articulate atheist defense of Islam as a violent religion, it’s literally seconds away.”

    So what? People could go to a library before Google was around. Or they could think up a justification themselves. Even if they find one, they will still have to consider it in their own mind. They don’t just slavishly obey what internet websites tell them. It’s not like “Google has spoken.”

    There’s no automatic moral sanction included with Google, unlike with religion.

    All they have to do is read the news. They can read the Koran, too. Islam is a violent religion and I hear dozens of news stories every week proving it. Little 13 year old girls would not be stoned to death for being raped if Islam wasn’t around to prescribe that punishment.

    Or maybe they can listen to Ayan Hirsi-Ali, an apostate Muslim whose life is in constant danger since she left Islam and has become an outspoken critic of it.

    That doesn’t mean that all Muslims are violent people. There are some progressive Muslims who are all too often being squashed by repressive Muslim theocracies. It’s what happens when the clerics get control of the government. But when it comes down to what the text actually says, it is a violent book that commands the killing of heathens.

    Religions change and become less violent, but it comes from outside the religion most of the time.

    “or you can be a Nietzschean atheist, and find sites that promote the will to power and contempt for Christian “slave” morality.”

    I detect that you’ve been believing things about Nietzsche without understanding him. Slave morality means you do decide an action is good because the master says it’s good rather than thinking about what is good for yourself. It is contemptible to approach morality in that way, and it leads to the worst atrocities whenever you base your morality on authority figures.

    Someone who understands what “slave morality” means is less of a threat than someone who exercises slave morality.

    “The Internet “verses” you choose to gravitate to are up to you.”

    So then is this the fault of the internet? Should we ban it?

    What’s the point you’re making? The internet differs from religion in that there is not any built-in mechanism that says “everything on the internet is true and good.” That’s in the religious texts.

  10. Aaron says:

    survey results:

    Atheists, being a moderate proportion of the USA population (about 8-16%) are disproportionately less numerous in the prison population (0.21%)

    Japan (the most atheistic nation in the G-8) has the lowest murder rate while the United States (the most Christian nation in the G-8) has the highest. Japan used to have much stronger religious faith, and a state religion, and guess what: Japan was remarkably aggressive and militaristic when “Shinto” was at its peak, and during WW2, when its Emperor was regarded as a God.

    Louisiana, with America’s highest church attendance rate, has twice the national average murder rate.

  11. santitafarella says:

    Aaron:

    Correlation and causation have always got to be detangled before you draw such broad generalizations.

    There are, for example, issues of “level of education” at stake here, and the contingencies of history (such as migration patterns in and out of Louisiana and, with regard to Japan, the other factors that went into WWII).

    You seem to be suggesting that religion and irreligion are “inherently” either violent or nonviolent without taking into account the historical contingencies that set in motion any ideology’s violent or nonviolent impulses.

    And if you don’t think that atheism, as part of an ideology that one might adopt, has the potential for violent interpretation under the right historical contingencies, read Nietzsche and Darwin and remember that a lot of people who read them in the 20th century did violent things with the ideas that they found in those two authors at the heart-center of their bosoms.

    And, of course, this is also true in the 21st century as well.

    —Santi

    • zomnificent says:

      Nietzsche and Darwin do not advocate violence. Please stop passing them around as examples of “violent atheists”.

      Atheism by itself can’t lead to violence. It is only the proposition that there are no gods. “Anti-theism”, opposition to religion, can lead to violence, even if it rarely does.

  12. santitafarella says:

    Zomnificent:

    You’re essentializing and reading what I actually wrote inattentively. The implications that one can draw from the writings of Nietzsche and Darwin are multiple, and historically there are people who have drawn noxious conclusions from them. Just as the Bible can be read in different ways, so people have read Nietzsche and Darwin in different ways. You have a comfy way that you read them. Fine. Your way is not the only way.

    —Santi

    • zomnificent says:

      Neither Nietzsche nor Darwin ever have a clear endorsement of violence in their writings. Darwin never said nature was something we should try to emulate, as his writing was descriptive rather than prescriptive. Herbert Spencer is the one who applied a version of natural selection to society – only he was the one deciding who or what was “fittest”. He was the one who decided that wealth was evidence of fitness.

      In contrast, the Bible has several clear calls for and endorsements of violence. It lends itself to violent interpretations much more easily than Nietzsche or Darwin. But another key factor is that religion has a built-in authoritarian power structure, whereas Darwin’s or Nietzsche’s ideas do not unless they are incorporated by a separate political movement.

      When an ideology, like communism, adopts atheism as a part of it (such as The Society of the Godless did), it is not the proposition that there are no gods leading directly to violence. That proposition must be accompanied by some other baggage to lead to any action. The atheism is not the thing that is being “interpreted violently” because there is no action called for by the belief that there is no god, or the lack of a beliefs in gods. There’s no way to interpret that single proposition as an endorsement of any action violent or otherwise.

      What I take exception to in your sentence is that you are saying that the atheism itself has the potential for violent interpretation. That’s not the case.

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