Violence Against Religion?

Victor Reppert posted this on his Dangerous Idea blog under the title “Why Not?”:

“OK, suppose you think that religion really does harm, and we really have to do what we can to stamp it out. Most of us don’t have the opportunity to help establish or eliminate religion by the use of violence. But suppose an opportunity arises. Through a violent act, we can, as we see it, greatly decrease the influence of religion on the world. Now what do you do? Do you say “No, violence is wrong, we have to let the God delusion die of other causes. The end does not justify the means.” or do we say “OK, yeah, we’re doing violence, but this is how we vastly decrease the influence of religion on the world. The end does justify the means.” The Grand Inquisitors, the prosecutors at the Salem Witch Trials, the Crusaders, etc. all thought that they were doing good and promoting the kingdom of God.  In Tolkien’s writings, the moral fate of many of the characters depends upon their willingness or unwillingness to use power (such as the power of the Ring) to do what they perceive to be good. What possible reason do we have for believing that atheists, especially of the Dawkins variety, would resist the use of power and even violence to promote atheism if the opportunity would arise? I can’t think of a single one.”

Philosophers enjoy the freedom to imagine farfetched scenarios: Mr. Truetemp, who can always tell us the ambient temperature to the degree, but who has no idea how he has this information; Tom Grabit, the library kleptomaniac; Fake Barn County, where everybody puts up fake barn façades; the woman kidnapped by music lovers and used as life-support for a world-famous violinist; and all sorts of people in the paths of runaway trolleys. Good fun. Victor’s scenario is another of this genre. No matter how much a virulent anti-theist hates religion, he would be hard put to come up with a realistic plan to use violence to suppress religion. But with respect to such philosophical reveries, reality has nothing to do with it. Indeed, their purpose is to propose counterfactual situations in order to see what would hold “in principle.”

Still, it would be good to reflect on what history (which does have to touch base with reality) has to say about the efficacy of violence in affecting religious influences. Many religions have tried to suppress the influence of other religions with violence—with decidedly dismal results. Christianity did pretty much suppress the practice of paganism in Europe for a long time (or at least move it underground; it is now coming back). But the Thirty Years’ War was an abysmal failure for all involved. Seventy years of official atheism in Russia, backed by the Gulag, did not extirpate Orthodoxy. Quite the contrary.

The bottom line, as John Locke observed in A Letter Concerning Toleration, is that force can change behavior, but it cannot change the heart. In other words, physical threats can make a hypocrite, but not a convert. In fact, as Tertullian said sagely, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Dungeon, fire, and sword, in addition to being cruel, have the additional defect of inefficiency. Among other things, religion is an idea, and the only effective way to fight an idea is with another idea. When combatting an idea, the pen is not only mightier than the sword; it is the weapon that works. What made the Reformation successful where previous revolts had failed? Unquestionably much of the success of Luther and the other reformers was their enthusiastic use of the printing press.

If people in the Western world are less obsessively and reflexively religious than they were a few centuries back (and I think we are), then to what do we owe this change? Karen Armstrong says that current secularism in European cultures is something unique in history. What brought about this momentous change? Surely, as much as anything else, it was ideas—The Enlightenment, modern natural and social science, and secular philosophies and ideologies, like Marxism, pluralism, relativism, and so forth. Any account of the rise of secularism would have to mention the intellectual influence of Hume, Voltaire, d’Holbach, Kant, Paine, Mill, Darwin, T.H. Huxley, Feuerbach, Strauss, Nietzsche, Freud and others. The commitment to combatting religion with ideas therefore enjoys the endorsement of reality.

Is it, in principle, possible to imagine scenarios, however farfetched, that would sanction violence against religion? Well, yeah, I guess I could imagine some. Suppose the worship of Moloch, complete with child sacrifice, became popular again. Would violence against such a religion be justified? Sure. So what?

In the current horrific situation, the absolutely pressing issue is, what will be effective against extremist violence in the name of religion? It is essential to realize that the violent Islamists are not mad dogs, as candidate Ben Carson just characterized them. They do not attack us because they “hate our freedom” as George W. Bush put it (and who then energetically abridged that freedom). Behind Islamic extremism is ideology, an ideology very cleverly packaged to be attractive to angry, disaffected young Muslims. This ideology is spread via slick propaganda on the Internet and with networks supported by social media. This is not your father’s terrorism; it is savvy, smart, and hip to the latest technology.

To fight today’s terrorism, we will certainly need to meet violence with violence, but we cannot rely on police or military action, of any degree, to solve the problem. In a column in today’s Houston Chronicle, right-wing pundit Charles Krauthammer charged that U.S. airpower is conducting only seven strikes a day against ISIS. OK. Step it up to 70 or 700. Shoot, indulge the fantasies of Republican chickenhawks and send in the Marines! Sure, our boys will kill lots of those crummy ISIS bastards (and good riddance), but that will not solve the problem. In the long run, it may only make it worse. What is needed is a counter-narrative, a potent ideology that is just as smartly-packaged and cleverly-propagated as the terrorist doctrine.

What sort of ideology would that be? Maybe, recalling the saying about wisdom coming “from the mouths of babies,” someone like Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai could show the way. She is the Pakistani teenager shot in the head by a fanatic because of her activism for the education of girls in Islamic countries. Perhaps a message that emphasizes education, democracy, economic advancement, and the empowerment of women could appeal to idealistic young Muslims even more than an ideology of hate appeals to the angry ones. Nonviolent activism can draw very broad support, as Gandhi showed in India and M.L. King, Jr. in the U.S. Sometimes an appeal to the better angels of our nature actually works.