Here is a useful coincidence.
The day after I write a post discussing the difference between presenting ideas and presenting reasons for action, I get an email from American Humanist praising the Freedom from Religion Foundation for running an advertisement in the New York Times linking religion to the destruction of the World Trade Center.
The advertisement is an image of the World Trade Center when it still stood, accompanied by the text, "Imagine a world free from religion."
When the Connecticut Valley Atheists put a similar sign before the city center as a part of a Christmas display, I wrote a set of posts on the bigotry expressed by such a remark. Connecticut Valley Atheists - Imagine, Communication, Causation, and Condemnation, and Speech Proposal
Yet, here we are again, with a national organization flagrantly advertising in a major newspaper that Atheists are just as capable of being fear-mongering bigots as any religious person can be.
The Core Argument
There is a difference between saying that "religion" is responsible for the attacks on 9/11 and saying that "a religion" is responsible - just as there is a difference between saying that "a white person" is responsible for the murder of a black man and saying "white people" are responsible.
The first statement can be true – and is true – in some instances. Yet, to go from the former truth to the latter statement is an invalid inference of a type typically motivated by a bigot's desire to promote hatred without respect to either truth or reason.
A religion caused the destruction of 9/11. I would have no objection to an advertisement that pointed to that attack and said, "Imagine a world without THAT religion." But this is not what the advertisement said. It wants us to put the blame on all religion. It is as bigoted as an advertisement that put up a picture of Hitler and, instead of saying, "Imagine a world without THAT white man," it said, "Imagine a world without white men."
Or, accordingly, putting up a picture of a black person who has committed a heinous crime that everybody knows about and that generates strong emotions, and putting his image on a sign that says, "Imagine a world without blacks."
I can understand how the members of these organizations and their defenders might loathe to think of their actions in those terms. However, that does not prevent the comparison from being true. Remember, no bigot of any kind thinks of his prejudice as being bad.
Besides, how many times have religious bigots put up signs of Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, and others saying, in effect, "Imagine a world without atheists." For some reason, atheists, many of whom applaud the advertisement mentioned above, call those inferences bigoted and unfair.
Let's put the problem with this advertisement clearly in focus. The problem is with the inference, “A person with property X did Y; therefore, we should rid the world of all people with property X.” It is an unjustified inference from 'a religion’ to 'religion' – which is just as bigoted as an inference from ‘a black person' to 'black people' or 'an atheist' to 'atheists'.
The standard response to this argument is to say that the analogy does not work. A person does not kill another person because he is white (or because he is black or because he is an atheist), but people do kill others because of their religious beliefs. That is why religion is necessarily bad, while none of these other things are not necessarily bad.
However, it does not defeat the argument. Nobody kills another person because of 'religion'. One person may kill another because of a religion, but not religion. The a religion - religion fallacy is still at play, it is still invalid, and it is still an expression of bigotry.
Ultimately, there is no sense of the phrase 'because of' that will make the statement 'A performed this horrible act because of religion' true. The statement, 'A performed this horrible act because of a religion' is sometimes true. However, what is true of a religion need not be true of religion, in the same way that what is true of a black person need not be true of all black people.
Let’s look at the most common sense of what it means to say that something happened because of something else. Imagine that a house burns down in a city. A fire inspector is sent in to discover the cause of the fire. In his report he write, "The house burned down because of . . . ." Because of what?
What the inspector is looking for is something that distinguishes the fact that this house burned down from all of the other houses that did not burn down. What, in this case, was different?
If we apply this sense of the term 'because of' to the World Trade Center, this means that we need to find out what makes the World Trade Center different from all of the other towers that did not burn on September 11th.
Religion? That's the answer?
Not hardly. Every other tower on the planet was surrounded by just as much religion as the World Trade Center. At best, coming back with the claim that the World Trade Center was brought down because of religion would be like the fire inspector telling us that the house burned down because of the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere. Even if it were true that without oxygen the house would not burn down, the house did not burn down because of the presence of oxygen. There are millions of houses in the same oxygen environment that are not burning down. And there are hundreds of skyscrapers in the presence of religion that are not collapsing.
However, we can't even get the sense that religion caused the World Trade Center to collapse that is even as strong as the claim that oxygen caused the house to burn. In the case of the house, the house cannot burn without oxygen.
Is it the case that towers cannot be attacked and brought down without religion?
I can give you an infinite number of scenarios in which somebody destroys a sky scraper that have nothing to do with religion. A disgruntled employee, a scam to collect insurance, foreigners upset about America’s alleged theft of their resources or support for a tyrannical leader that killed his parents, all of these can cause people to attack and destroy towers without the slightest input of religion.
In other words, religion is not a sufficient condition for the collapse of sky scrapers (many sky scrapers exist in the presence of religion). Nor is it a necessary condition for the collapse of sky scrapers (sky scrapers can be destroyed by people acting without religious motive).
So, again, there is no sense in which it is true that the World Trade Center collapsed because of religion.
I will belabor the point. The World Trade Center collapsed because of a religion that is true. However, there is no legitimate inference from what is true of a religion to a blanket conclusion that this statement is true of religion.
Theism, Atheism, and Terrorism
Let's look for a moment at the claim that nobody has ever killed another person in the name of areligion (or atheism).
In any sense in which this statement is true, it is also true that nobody has killed another person in the name of religion.
Clearly, we have to admit that there are atheists who have killed other people, and who have killed people because those people were religious and he thought religious people deserved to die. This happened on a grand scale during the French Revolution. It also happened in many communist revolutions. And there is nothing to prevent the lone anti-theist with a gun to decide that he is going to kill himself and as many theists as he can because theists are responsible for all of the trouble in the world and deserve to die.
But we are not willing to say that these are instances in which people killed others because of atheism. If somebody offers that interpretation, we are quick to answer that atheism does not imply communism and does not entail the destruction that these people performed. It is quite possible for a person to be an atheist and reject those actions. So, it is a mistake to say that these people committed their horrible crimes because of atheism.
Well, religion does not imply crusades or inquisitions or witch hunts either. Religion does not entail the destruction of the World Trade Center. It is quite possible for a person to be religion and reject crusades, inquisitions, and terrorist attacks. So, it is a mistake to say that these people committed their horrible crimes because of religion.
Find me a sense in which religion is responsible for the destruction if the World Trade Center in which it is also not the case that atheism is responsible for the gulags of the former Soviet Union. The rule is that you have to apply the same sense to both examples. You can’t use one standard to evaluate religion’s faults and a different standard when evaluating atheism. If you do that, then you are guilty of the moral crime of hypocrisy.
Analysis of the Advertisement
The FFRF advertisement uses a very popular and very powerful marketing ploy in which you show somebody an image that generates an emotional response, you include a reference to something else, and you engineer a change in emotions where the viewer transfers the emotional reaction of the image to the thing referenced. In short, this advertisement is engineered to generate an emotional response of fear and hatred using the World Trade Center, and presents a reference to religion, in order to cause viewers to transfer their emotional reaction to the image to the concept of 'religion'.
It is the same tactic as that used in creating a documentary where the narrator speaks of 'atheists' and 'evolution' while showing images of Hitler, Stalin, Nazi death camps, and nuclear explosions. Here, too, the effect was to use the images to generate an emotional response in the viewer and then to attach that emotional response to the concepts of 'atheism' and 'evolution'.
You cannot condemn the latter (as it certainly deserved to be condemned) without condemning the former. Doing so – applying a different standard to these two examples of hate-mongering – makes one a hypocrite. And a bigot.
I am not making this argument on the grounds that we must coddle or show and undeserved deference to religion. I have argued repeatedly that the right to freedom of religion is not a right to immunity from criticism or condemnation for one's beliefs. However, that condemnation still has to come with a measure of respect to the values of truth and reason. "Some people with quality X are guilty of N, so we should consider ridding the world of all people with quality X" is not consistent with that standard.
This blog is not about promoting atheism. This blog is about promoting virtue and demoting vice. It is true that one of the vices that I am particularly interested in demoting is anti-atheist bigotry. However, my opposition to this vice has much more to do with the fact that it is bigotry than that it is anti-atheist. A person cannot oppose bigotry by embracing it when it is useful in attacking a target that one loves to attack. One that has to oppose bigotry wherever it is found.
One of the places that it is found is in an advertisement that attempts to claim that all of religion caused the attacks of the World Trade Center when, in fact, only a subset of religious beliefs were responsible for those attacks.
I'm sending a copy of this post both to the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the American Humanist. I wish never to see that image again, or any image like it, except as an example of how people used to use emotional responses to images to promote unreasoned hatred of whole groups of people. I hope only to see it as an example of the type of bigoted rhetoric that humans have outgrown.
If you agree that, while promoting atheism is fine, promoting bigotry is not (and that my arguments above are sound), then please back me up.