Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Communication, Causation, and Condemnation

Today, I wish to address some comments from a member of the studio audience. Those comments concern my objection to the “Imagine: No Religion” poster that superimposes these words on an image of the World Trade Center towers before 9/11. I presented those objections in an earlier posting called Connecticut Valley Atheists: Imagine.

I assert that the meaning of this poster is clear, false, and unjust. That it is, in effect, the same sort of argument used against atheism when a theist mention Hitler, Stalin, Mau Tse Tung, and Pol Pot and says (in effect), “Imagine: No Atheism.” Anybody who recognizes the unfairness – in the outright bigotry of the second statement should recognize the same bigotry in the first. The reaction, “How dare you condemn me for actions that I had no part in and do not condone?” applies both to those who use the ‘Imagine” poster and those who use the Hitler and Stalin cliché.

Matt E, in a comment to that post, offered some responses. His defense brings up important and relevant issues in the realm of communication, causation, and responsibility. I want to address those issues.

I want to attract the reader’s attention specifically to the issue of causation, discussed below, because there is a bit of sophistry behind the claim that religion ‘caused’ the 9/11 attacks.


The first issue that I want to address is question of how to interpret this sign. I have heard a fair number of creative interpretations for this sign. However, the interpretation that matters is the thought that will likely occur in the brain of just about anybody who views the sign.

I do a fair amount of communicating as I write this blog. The purpose behind each sentence is to cause certain concepts to appear in the minds of the readers. The ‘meaning’ of each statement is determined by the ideas that appear in the minds of readers who encounter it.

With every sentence that I write I ask myself, “How will this be interpreted by those who read it?” , and the rule for every sentence that I write is that its meaning is determined by the concepts that are most likely to appear in the mind of the reader.

For example, let’s say that I were to create a sign that said “Black people are stupid.” When challenged about the sign, I say that by ‘stupid’ I mean that black people are bipedal. The statement has nothing at all to do with their intelligence. When I put that message up on a billboard on a major interstate it would be perfectly legitimate for others to protest that the statement denigrates blacks by calling them unintelligent. My personal, private definition of the term is irrelevant. The public meaning – the meaning to competent English speakers who encounter the sign – is what matters.

In this case, the “Imagine” sign means, “You should hate and fear everybody who believes in God because the people who did this believed in God and acted on that belief.” It is no different than showing a sign of Hitler, Stalin, Mau Tse Tung, and Pol Pot and saying, “Imagine: No Atheism” People who do this are telling my neighbors to hate and fear me, not because of anything that I have said or condone, but because of the evil acts of others who I, too, condemn.

Matt E. adds:

I have a hard time imagining anyone seeing that sign and thinking "Yeah, all religious people are as dangerous as the 9/11 highjackers! Let's arrest all the Christians!" So what is the harm of the sign? It might be offensive to some people, but it is not bigotry.

I hear or read the Hitler and Stalin cliché somewhere just about every day. Those people are also not saying that we should arrest all atheists. However, this fact does not save those who use this claim from the charge of hate-mongering bigotry. They are still telling my neighbors to hate and fear me – even if they have to wait until I actually committed the inevitable crime to actually arrest me.

I have a right to be judged by my own words and deeds. People who believe in God who would never commit or condone an act like 9/11 also have the right to be judged on their own words and deeds. Spreading hate and fear beyond the group that is actually guilty of a crime is simply unjust. It’s wrong.

And the idea that there is one set of moral rules for ‘us’ and another for ‘them’ – where we claim a moral right to do that which we condemn in others . . . the word for that way of thinking is ‘hypocrisy’, which is still wrong.


Another argument that Mike E. and others have used in defense of the message on the sign is what can be called “If-not-but-for causation.” That is to say, “If not but for religion, the towers would still be standing.”

However, “If-not-but-for causation” is senseless and is not the way we use the term ‘causation’.

Imagine that there had been a fire – a house has burned down killing the five occupants. Fire inspectors go into the home to determine the cause of the fire. They hold a press conference, and they declare, “We have determined that the fire was caused by the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere. Our research shows that, if not but for the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere, there would have been no fire.”

Those inspectors would be . . . or should be . . . marched straight out of the press conference and into their office to clean out their desk and start looking for new work. Inspectors who think that the concept of ‘causation’ can be answered by looking at the if-not-but-for role of oxygen prove that they have no understanding of what people mean when they talk about cause.

When it comes to explaining the fire, what the investigators are supposed to discover is the difference that explains why this house burned down and why others did not. The presence of oxygen in the atmosphere does not answer this question. There are hundreds of millions of houses existing in an atmosphere that contains oxygen that are not burning down. The cause of the fire is that which distinguishes – that which marks the difference – between the house that burned down and the many houses that did not.

Saying that ‘religion’ is responsible for 9/11 is like saying that the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere is responsible for a particular house fire. The overwhelming numbers of people who are religious who would never participate in or condone 9/11 is proof of the absurdity of making such a connection, just as the overwhelming numbers of houses existing in the presence of oxygen that are not burning down proves that the inspector’s report is a joke.

If you could honestly say that religion played absolutely no role in the motives of the 9/11 attackers, then the sign's message would be clearly false.

That’s the wrong test.

As I said above, I do not prove that the inspectors produced an absurd report by showing that oxygen had nothing to do with the fire. I prove it by showing that there are hundreds of millions of houses existing in an atmosphere containing oxygen that are not burning down. That is the fact that justifies firing the inspectors for stupidity and incompetence.

Similarly, the test to use against the Imagine sign is not to show that religion had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. It is done by showing that there are billions of people who are religious who would never participate in or condone such an attack. This proof is so clear, so obvious, that we can legitimately question the moral character of those who decide to ignore it.

The “if-not-but-for” test is not reason. It’s sophistry.

We would actually never expect to find inspectors who are so foolish that they would use ‘if-not-but-for causation’ in reporting the cause of a fire. The idea is so blatantly absurd that the problem is obvious. However, when it comes to vilifying a hated group, people are more than capable of blinding themselves to this absurdity. That doesn’t make “if-not-but-for causation” any less absurd.

The Moral Dimension

At this point, we have reason to ask why anybody would embrace the absurdity of ‘if-not-but-for causation’. The answer to that question is because they want to. They like the conclusion – it makes them feel good. They do not care if the argument in support of that conclusion makes no sense – if it cannot be defended rationally. All that matters is that the conclusion feels good. The ‘defense’ will come later, in the form of whatever rationalizations one can think of to throw at the critics, no matter how absurd.

Face it, these arguments are rationalizations. They are weak inferences that people grab on to because they love the conclusion and are eager to grasp at anything that seems to support their desired conclusion, no matter how feeble. I see a lot of this behavior on the part of leading Christians, and I condemn it where when I see it. Another quality that I find in a lot of leading Christians that I feel no desire to emulate is the blatant hypocrisy of turning one’s back on wrongs committed by people “on our side.”

Criticizing Religion

I have not denied that a religion was responsible for the World Trade Center attacks. However, holding a religion responsible means finding that set of religious beliefs that distinguish those who embrace the idea of crashing airplanes into sky scrapers, and those who do not. If anybody were to create a sign that says “Imagine: No (insert name of religion whose members believe in the legitimacy of engaging in such acts here)”, I would have no room for complaint.

We live in a culture that says that it is wrong to criticize religion. Because of this, people have learned that they can engage in the worst atrocities and avoid any type of accountability by hiding behind the cloak of religion. “You are attacking my faith” has become the universal “get out of moral responsibility free card,” and we are seeing huge numbers of those who love to do harm flocking to religion for protection.

The days of finding security from condemnation by hiding behind scripture and holy symbols must come to an end. I am not saying that it is wrong to criticize religion. What I am saying is that, when criticizing a religion, justice requires condemning those who are actually guilty of the offense. Condemning those who are not actually guilty (because one wants to encourage others to hate and fear the target group) is the antithesis of justice.

This condemnation of religions that make its followers a threat to others is not limited to suicide bombings. Ultimately, I use the same standard in evaluating those whose religion prompts them to pass legislation against homosexual marriage, in favor of teaching myth and superstition in science classes, and blocking vital medical research.

When we look at the dead and the suffering that they leave in their wake, those who oppose medical research or sound biology education for religious reasons make Al Queida look like a boy scout troop. You are far more likely . . . far more likely . . . to lose your own life or health – or a loved one – to these perpetrators of medical and scientific ignorance than you will to any suicide bomber.

These are harsh words. Yet, any who would wait for me to retract this or to apologize for it is going to have a terribly long time to wait. That apology will come only if somebody should prove that I am mistaken. It will not come by claiming that my statement may have hurt somebody's feelings. To apologize for the sake of religious sensitivity is to say that religious sensitivities are more important than the life and health of the people allowed to suffer as a result of those actions. That is exactly backwards.

Yet, it is still the case that my criticism is directed entirely at those whose religion prompts them to block medical research. I blame those who are guilty, and do not step out of the boundaries that justice prescribes. The fact that they do harm for religious reasons gives them no immunity from condemnation. The fact that there are others, who are religious, yet who do no harm for religious reasons, provides those others with a perfectly adequate defense.


Anonymous said...

Hi Alonzo -
Wow, I'm kind of flattered that you took my arguments seriously enough to rebut so thoroughly.

First of all, I absolutely agree with you that justice requires condemning those parties actually responsible for a crime. It is obvious, but worth stating, because we are not always aware of why we throw stones at one scapegoat and not at another. That certainly includes me.

That said, I still have a few reservations about your interpretation of the Imagine: No Religion sign.

You wrote: "Saying that ‘religion’ is responsible for 9/11 is like saying that the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere is responsible for a particular house fire."

Neither oxygen nor religion can be "responsible" for anything. They are not people. Say rather that religion is a cause of 9/11 and oxygen is a cause of fire and it is an apt analogy. Just as religion is clearly not the only cause of 9/11, neither is oxygen the only cause of fire. Fire requires oxygen by definition; religious terrorism requires religion by definition.

You wrote: "“If-not-but-for causation” is senseless and is not the way we use the term ‘causation’."

Since when? Fire inspectors use "if-not-but-for causation" all the time. If not for the candle left unattended, if not for lack of fire alarm, etc. The difference between fire inspectors and the CVAs is that fire inspectors are charged with finding the proximate cause of a fire. It is unnecessary to point out to a fire inspector that oxygen is a necessary prerequisite for a house fire. For the CVAs, it is absolutely sensible to point out a terrible result of religion, even though religion may not be the proximate cause.

You wrote: "Similarly, the test to use against the Imagine sign is not to show that religion had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. It is done by showing that there are billions of people who are religious who would never participate in or condone such an attack. This proof is so clear, so obvious, that we can legitimately question the moral character of those who decide to ignore it."

Ouch! Again, the only thing your "billions of people" argument proves is that religion is not the proximate cause of 9/11. Instead of the house fire analogy, here is one that is more appropriate (since oxygen is completely ubiquitous, while religion is not). A man skids off the road in the rain, smashing his car into a tree. What caused the crash? The insurance company determines that the rain is what they call a "cause-in-fact," but not the proximate cause. Interestingly, the test they use to determine cause-in-fact is called the "but-for" test.

You wrote: and "My personal, private definition of the term is irrelevant. The public meaning – the meaning to competent English speakers who encounter the sign – is what matters."

The sign does not say that one act of religious violence is the fault of all religious people. That conclusion is not warranted. The sign says "imagine no religion" with an expected result. If not religion, then no 9/11. If not oxygen, then no fire. Not proximate cause, but absolutely true. Even if I agreed that if-not-but-for was senseless (which I do not), that is still clearly the argument they are making, not the "9/11 is the fault of all religious people" argument you are making it out to be.

Finally, the Stalin argument.
I agree that the Stalin argument against atheism is unjust and senseless. And it would be equally unjust to blame Religion for, say, pedophile priests. Those men did not act because of their Religion, no more than Stalin ordered the Purges because of his Atheism. But 9/11 was caused by religious zealots acting in accord with what they saw as religious law, and with religious motives.

No one (not me, not the CVAs) is claiming that being religious necessarily leads to violence. The claim is that 9/11 and the daily religious violence that occurs around the world forms a valid criticism of religion all by itself. Making that argument requires no more than, say, three words and a photograph.

Rich said...

I support the FFRF sign, but it could have been more precise (which is part of your argument).

Here is why. You can draw a direct line between the dogma of an afterlife and the role of suicide bombers (and Christian soldiers for that matter). Take away this dogma and much of the "bravery" of suicidal zealots and soldiers would vanish. In this sense, religion (or any other scheme that pushes the dogma of an afterlife, sin, salvation and that whole line) are responsible.

The self appointed votaries of god presume to know things and tell us things that they simply makeup. What is more, the unsavory ones among them have dreams of personal power. They get away with it because many of us humans are ignorant and gullible. They know this. So if we have institutions that are deliberately fostering suicide we can certainly say they "caused" the 9/11 atrocities and all the other acts of mayhem.

This web site is dedicated to recording acts of terrorism.


The Religion of Peace -- maintains a running body count of victims
Submitted by:Totanaca at: 12/1/2008 under: "Islam".

"Far from accepting responsibility for Islamic terror, Muslims look for reasons to shirk it. Some even grasp onto wild conspiracy theories that blame Americans for 9/11 - just as the millions of Jihad victims over the centuries are in some way held responsible for their own slaughter as well. And finally, we came to realize that this extraordinary arrogance and self-absorption on the part of the Muslim community, along with an inability to empathize with people who are not like them or engage in the sort of self-critique that leads to moral progress is in no way incidental to the religion. There is something deeply, deeply wrong with Islam. Originally, we started this website in the naive hope that perhaps Muslims just didn't realize the extent of the violence that is committed in the name of their religion. Perhaps if they understood, then they might be motivated to turn the critical eye inward and resolve those far more important issues that leave so many lives in agony and force the consumption of so many billions of dollars in security resources."

As for followers that do not commit acts of violence, as long as they support the dogma of an afterlife they are just as culpable. And all of them do support this dogma or they would not demean themselves to grovel at the feet of shrines and bow in prayer in the hope of prolonging their miserable lives.