Does Atheism Cause Slaughter?

Steve Pinker, in “The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”, has done a great deal of research about violence throughout history. Recently, he posted this on his website in answer to the common theistic assertion that atheism is the cause of the atrocities committed during the 20th century.

“This is a popular argument among theoconservatives and critics of the new atheism, but for many reasons it is historically inaccurate.
First, the premise that Nazism and Communism were “atheist” ideologies makes sense only within a religiocentric worldview that divides political systems into those that are based on Judaeo-Christian ideology and those that are not. In fact, 20th-century totalitarian movements were no more defined by a rejection of Judaeo-Christianity than they were defined by a rejection of astrology, alchemy, Confucianism, Scientology, or any of hundreds of other belief systems. They were based on the ideas of Hitler and Marx, not David Hume and Bertrand Russell, and the horrors they inflicted are no more a vindication of Judeao-Christianity than they are of astrology or alchemy or Scientology.
Second, Nazism and Fascism were not atheistic in the first place. Hitler thought he was carrying out a divine plan. Nazism received extensive support from many German churches, and no opposition from the Vatican. Fascism happily coexisted with Catholicism in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Croatia. See p. 677 for discussion and references.
Third, according to the most recent compendium of history’s worst atrocities, Matthew White’s Great Big Book of Horrible Things (Norton, 2011), religions have been responsible for 13 of the 100 worst mass killings in history, resulting in 47 million deaths. Communism has been responsible for 6 mass killings and 67 million deaths. If defenders of religion want to crow, “We were only responsible for 47 million murders—Communism was worse!”, they are welcome to do so, but it is not an impressive argument.
Fourth, many religious massacres took place in centuries in which the world’s population was far smaller. Crusaders, for example, killed 1 million people in world of 400 million, for a genocide rate that exceeds that of the Nazi Holocaust. The death toll from thehirty Years War was proportionally double that of World War I and in the range of World War II in Europe (p. 142).
When it comes to the history of violence, the significant distinction is not one between thesistic and atheistic regimes. It’s the one between regimes that were based on demonizing, utopian ideologies (including Marxism, Nazism, and militant religions) and secular liberal democracies that are based on the ideal of human rights. On pp. 337–338 I present data from Rummel showing that democracies are vastly less murderous than alternatives forms of government.”

What more can be said, except that the argument was irrelevant to begin with. The question is not whether religion makes people behave nicely, but whether it constitutes an accurate view of the world. If it does, then there ought to be some way to demonstrate this fact. If it doesn’t, then since we invented religion, we can invent whatever we need to replace it.
I’m not taking sides here guys, it’s just a simple matter of logic, and if God exists, he he gave us brains. If your argument stinks, don’t expect anyone to accept it.

The Very First Dungeon Master’s Guide

If you have played Dungeons and Dragons, you probably know what a Dungeon Master’s Guide is. And if you have looked at one of these, you likely know the name Gary Gygax.

Gary was the principle force behind the creation of D&D, and my college room mate played with a group of friends of his–some years after he had moved on into the corporate gaming world.

These guys played D&D using a photocopy of Gary’s original Dungeon Master’s guide, and he showed it to me one day. On the last page (or maybe it was in the front where it belonged–it was a long time ago) in plain, irregular, typewritten text, Gygax thanked the members of his gaming group who had helped, and added this conclusion:

“If you find any omissions or mistakes in this manual, please keep them to yourself. I have no intention of ever doing this again.”

Of course he did, writing many versions of that and derivative guides until his death in 2008.

Hal, if you’re out there, find that guide and put it on Ebay. Better yet, track down the original.

What Would Jesus Think?

Continuing our theme of contrary conclusions from the same data, I recently ran across an interesting online debate between a Christian and a skeptic over the meaning of a passage from the book of Mark.

In Mark 7:7-8, Jesus tells the Pharisees that the washing of hands before eating is “the tradition of men”, not “the commandment of God”. He says that a man is “defiled” not by what he puts in his mouth (dirty hands) but by what comes out of his body (godly, actions). To modern ears, this seems like a rather mixed metephor,  because in 7:18-19 he specifically says “whatever thing entereth into the man, it cannot defile him, Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats”.

The skeptic paraphrased it this way:

“Got that? Eating filth does not make you a bad person because food cannot reach your heart…and because it will only be pooped out with the rest of the filth anyway.”

The Christian had, of course, been arguing for the traditional interpretation, the spiritual lesson of admonishment to follow God’s law over the traditions of man, and therefore to follow Jesus. This was, after all, long before germ theory, when the heart was held to be the seat of reason, and when both illness and insanity were widely viewed as the work of demonic forces. So it makes sense that someone living in that age would confound spiritual and physical “defilement” in this way.

But of course, as the skeptic points out, Jesus is claiming to be or to speak for the creator who knows everything and is not limited by the ignorance of the Iron Age. Surely, having warned his people against eating pork (a carrier of parasites) he would not so blithely dismiss gastronomic hygiene. And further, while on the subject, wouldn’t he have taken a moment to admonish his followers against eating improperly stored grain (with its incumbent risk or ergo-induced-lunacy, which due to further misunderstanding of the mind, was a cause of cruel execution all the way up to the enlightenment)? No. He wouldn’t, the skeptic asserts, because he was a man living in the Iron Age and, like Moses before him, had no access to any divine wisdom that might have raised him above the ignorance of the age.

Of course, none of these passages appear in any copies of Mark older than about 390 AD anyway, so no one really knows what Jesus did or did not say. Perhaps he taught a course in pathogenic mycology at the local extension office and it’s all just gotten lost in translation.