Religion is the Cause of Terrible Behaviour

A fairly common theme in many atheist blogs is that religion is a causal factor in the various atrocities committed by people who are religious. JT Eberhard makes that point at the bottom of this post when he says (sarcastically):

But Islam can’t be the cause of this barbaric behavior because the Koran has some beautiful parts.

Now my purpose here is neither to attack nor vilify JT, so let’s not focus overmuch on that post. The key idea is that:

[Religion] is the cause of [general terrible behaviour]

It’s a reasonably popular viewpoint, which should be readily apparent to anyone who frequents atheist blogs. And I think it’s problematic (and wrong) for a number of reasons.

There are a number of ways of looking at cause and effect in Philosophy. I think the one that best captures this idea (if we took religion out of the picture, these events wouldn’t occur) is:

The Counterfactual View

The Counterfactual view is to look at a chain of events and to say “which of the events of this chain can we remove, such that the result is significantly different, and thus the event we removed is the cause of the event?” The only real ‘rule’ to this line of thinking is that we can’t remove events that are in the middle of a ‘chain’: we have to remove the start of that particular chain. Observant readers will suspect that there’s a big flaw right here. For the moment, let’s carry on.

A good example is snooker: a player hits the white ball, which strikes the black ball, which enters a pocket, which results in the winning of the game. Removing middle events isn’t an option, we can only remove the start of the chain: the player hitting the white ball. Remove that event (or alter it significantly, such as the angle of the stroke), and everything else changes. Thus do we attribute causal agency to the player of the game.

There are two main criticisms here:

  1. The “start” of the chain is somewhat arbitrary. If the player had taken up a different game many years ago, or taken up a non-game hobby, or died prior to this game taking place or… or… or… or… , we would have likewise changed everything here too. However, while all of this is entirely true, we want to hold the set of circumstances the same, while altering just one central thing, in order to examine our conceptions of causality. Notice that changing any of those things also changes the one event that we sought to alter in our example. The thought experiment is limiting the alteration to one single, small event (rather than the whole time-line). This criticism, while occasionally valid, usually isn’t.
  2. There is an issue of overdetermination, which requires a different example. Imagine that two assassins both agree to kill a particular person. Both of them are excellent shots, and on the agreed upon day, both take up positions, and fire at roughly the same moment, such that their bullets strike their target at approximately the same instant. Both shots, alone, would be terminal. Who killed the target?
    If we alter the situation such that A didn’t shoot, the target still dies form B’s bullet. And likewise if we alter it so that B didn’t shoot. So it could be said that both are responsible.
    However, what if the assassins agreed not to shoot if they saw the other shoot? Bear in mind that we’re not looking for legal culpability here (which is pretty clear cut), but actual causal responsibility.

I think that tracing the path of the causal responsibility of religion through the actions that people have taken, to argue that “well, but for religion, they would not have taken that action” is deeply, deeply problematic. I do not see how anyone can point at the events of New York, September 11th, 2001, and claim “but for religion, this would not have happened”. I do not, of course, deny that religion was a factor, but to claim it as the sole causal factor? I am unconvinced.

Religion as a Motivating Cause

I suspect that when people claim that “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion“, they’re pointing at the religion as the causal agent in the sense that I’ve outlined above. I think this is a highly over-simplified view, to the point that it’s completely wrong. For religion to operate in the way that is declared in the above statement, or in the way that certain bloggers want to claim, the sense is that it should be operating as “I am a member of [religion x], therefore I’m going to go kill someone.” And that’s simply not how any of the religious-themed terrorist attacks have worked.

While I agree that religion is certainly involved, to argue that it is a positive cause, a motivating factor, is an argument without evidence: over a billion people subscribe to Islam. To claim that these billion are ‘doing Islam wrong’ (as evidenced by their lack of mass movement to murder), and that only the convicted killers are doing it right… Words fail me. I simply don’t know how to express how disconnected that idea is from logic or reason.

When you attribute this kind of causal action to [insert religion of choice], you are asserting that this pressure is placed upon the adherents generally. You now need to explain why over a billion Muslims have not involved themselves in this kind of action, without some sort of hand-waving rhetoric. When you point at the promises of the afterlife for mass murder as motivator for the small handful of religiously-themed acts of terrorism, you also need to explain why this fails to motivate all the rest of the members of that particular religion.


Ethics is, by some definition, the study of morality, which is to say the seeking out of the rules by which we can encourage human (and others) flourishing. The job of Ethics is to provide action guidance, to provide a framework for mediation, and to allow us to predict how other members of our society will react (at least according to Dr. Johnna Fisher, a Philosophy Prof whom I deeply respect).

Humans are messy, violent, mammals (generally speaking). We have a froth of thoughts and ideas in our heads, and from an early age we tend to lash out violently when we don’t get our way. Share our blocks with the other kids? Surely it’s simpler to grab them all, punch the other kids, and then cry when forced to share, amirite?

Ethical systems don’t generate the ideas we have when trying to figure out the correct course of action, the ethical systems are there to filter out the ideas, to separate Wrong from Right (or, at least, Not-Quite-As-Wrong). In short, they act as a restraint.

To use a somewhat violent metaphor: our bodies are guns. Our minds are the trigger. Ethics/Morality act as the safety. The safety should ALWAYS be on. There are extreme cases, where the choice is to fight back or die, or to allow others to die. These are cases where Ethics (though imperfect) can tell us that it’s ok to take the safety off (insofar as things look like they’ll be worse if we don’t). And our judgement is not only often wrong, but frequently.

Religion claims to provide an education in Ethics. It fails. Thumb through any religious manual, and you will find occasion after occasion where religions says it’s alright to react violently when dealing with a person from a different culture, or of a different gender, or of a different sex, or has their hair too long, or is wearing a tattoo, or is simply not resting on the day arbitrarily chosen by that religion as a day when everyone MUST rest.

It really doesn’t matter which religion we’re talking about, as the vast majority of them have examples or rules whereby violent reaction is allowed, either explicitly stated, or as an example of ‘a prophet’ doing terrible, terrible things (either Moses committing genocide, or Mohammad committing paedophilia).

Religion doesn’t put these terrible thoughts and ideas in our heads. It doesn’t tell us that ‘the appropriate response to people treating my religion badly is to set off a bomb in the middle of a marathon’. But once you’ve had that thought, there’s very little in the religion to stop you doing that. Sure, the apologists will argue that their self-contradictory book says somewhere that this is bad, but it also argues (either explicitly or by example) that this behaviour is ok. Claiming that a religious upbringing is the cause of these terrible acts is as ridiculous as claiming that a religious upbringing will prevent people from committing these terrible acts.

Religion doesn’t pull the trigger. But it takes the safety off.

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4 responses to “Religion is the Cause of Terrible Behaviour”

  1. My issue with this argument, aside from what you’ve described above, is that it usually fails to “show its work”. Strong beliefs that are not based on evidence cause bad behaviour – nationalism, race supremacy, tribalism, take your pick. Religion is a strong belief that is not based on evidence. And therefore, by the transitive property, blahblahblah.

    The idea that one MUST have religious feeling to commit atrocities is nonsense, and even those who make the original claim recognize this fact. There is an association between certain forms of religious belief and violence, but those forms of religious belief bear a striking resemblance to other forms of belief that do not invoke the supernatural.

  2. You give a philosopher’s definition of causality. Bit such a definition is useless. In the modern world, the definition we use when we really want to understand problems is the scientific definition. (“Scientism! Scientism!”)

    For example, science tells us that you should exercise to stay healthy. But you cannot draw a simplistic billiard ball causal chain between jogging on Tuesday and living longer decades from now. Instead, you must use statistics.

    Now it is reasonable to say that we lack sufficiently controlled experiments or studied participants to say anything with any scientific confidence. That would be fair enough. But let us at least use a useful definition of causality informed by the last 200 years of thought and research rather than the kind that an Ancient Greek would have used.

    With respect to ethics and religion, one important point is that religion gives an adherent something to fight about with metaphysical implications. Killing or dying is small potatoes in such a fight. Ideologies and nations can also become emotionally motivating to the extent of being almost metaphysical, but I see that as an indictment of ideology and nationalism, not a defense of religion.

  3. I look forward to you presenting a philosophically-uninformed “scientific” definition of causality: such a definition doors not exist.

    The counterfactual ideas that I have outlined above are drawn from David Lewis’s work. From 1973.

    I find it best to know what I’m talking about *before* presuming to criticize a position.

  4. Continuing to derail while not responding to criticisms of earlier comments will result in comments going back into moderation. When you address the existing criticism, your additional comments may be released from moderation.

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