Sunday, November 6, 2011

Disingenuous Arguments About Religion

A while ago I was reading an article about Mitt Romney and I happened to glance at the comments below the article. There was one comment, which had nothing to do with Mitt Romney running for president, that caught my eye. It said, "Religion is the worlds biggest war maker and hate inciting machine ever invented."

Now that struck me as quite a claim. I am well aware that several wars have been started and fought because of religion, but to claim that it was the "biggest war maker" in history seemed like quite a stretch. This got me thinking because I like to read about history, historical figures, historical events such as wars, so I was wondering just how many wars in history could be attributed to religion. Just off the top of my head I could think of a few religious wars (or at least some "religious" wars), but I could also think of several more non-religious wars (including whole periods of history where empires expanded and which had nothing to do with religion). But to flesh out my investigation I thought it best to look into a more complete list. So I went and looked up a lists of wars.

There certainly were a lot of wars in history. I also very quickly realized that the list of wars presented on Wikipedia was heavily skewed towards the European wars, since the only wars included there were wars to which we have adequate historical (written) records for. This immediately excludes so many wars of which we have archeological evidence for, but no written record of, even if they occurred during the same time period. For example the list of wars from 1000-1499 includes so many European wars, but not a single Native American war, despite the fact that there is ample evidence that wars occurred in the Americas during that time period.

So the list provided by Wikipedia should be considered to be a biased sample since it relies heavily on a certain subset of historical documentation (as a side note if you consider just the list of wars on Wikipedia then that would seem to indicate that Europeans cause a lot of wars, which has also been argued by some people wishing to show how terrible Europeans are. If you use histories written by Europeans to construct the list of wars then of course Europe will have "more" wars. In effect if you use a biased sample then that will determine the conclusion that you can draw.).

But the list provided (even if it is incomplete) should do for our purposes. Even though there is no single citation for the entire list (individual wars have several different citations), I found that there are several books published that list the recorded wars in history. For example there is the Encyclopedia of Wars, and the Dictionary of Wars, both rather extensive. The Encyclopedia of Wars lists a total of 1763 wars. It is noted that in the Encyclopedia of Wars only 123 (about 7%) can be classified as religious wars. That seems to be a far cry from being the world's "biggest war maker". It would seem that the political forces that were the driving the world's empires have had a more devastating impact on history in terms of number of wars fought and people killed. So to make the claim that religion has been the single biggest cause of war throughout history is to grossly misrepresent or just plain ignore history.

Returning to the original comment that prompted this post, I realize that it was just one random comment and as a wise man once said, "A single grasshopper does not make a plague of locusts." But I have been finding that there are more and more comments like this that rely on a very skewed view of history that deliberately leaves out some or most of the critical details. I find it rather ironic that the very people who reject and ridicule religion because of "it's beliefs of a false history" or because it is full of "things that aren't true" are committing the exact same errors that they accuse religious people of committing.

Now I am not arguing that all people who criticize religion fall into this group, or even that they constitute the majority, but this group does exist and it is growing (or they are just getting internet connections for the first time). But in the end these ideas get passed around and repeated as a modern type of town gossip and just like so many other forms of gossip it usually isn't substantiated or true. For those of us, like me, who are religious it gets a little old and tiresome after a while to constantly deal with comments like the one that prompted this post. Normally I wouldn't be too concerned, but the single grasshopper is starting to show up with more friends. And I'm just curious how far they will go and how it will impact my life because it can get a little awkward when someone I have to deal with in normal (real, non-internet) life thinks that I am part of a massive "hate inciting machine". So far I haven't met anyone that will say that to my face but I really don't want it to come to that. Until then I will keep reading watching how things are going.

1 comment:

Jared said...

Yes but all wars are hateful and crazy and all religious people are hateful and crazy; therefore religious people cause all wars.

That's so logically sound that not even Kurt Gödel could poke holes in it.

I always count myself unfortunate if I happen to read comments on news stories like that. Sometimes it's a perverse draw to the macabre, other times, it's a mindless action. I really try to avoid reading comments, particularly on political or religious stories. Even if I ignore the hate and just look at the logic of people's statements, there's usually enough illogic to make me feel like I need decontamination.