Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Single causes and simplistic thinking

A friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia called me out a couple of days ago for a statement I made in the post "Tribal mentality," regarding the tendency some people have to romanticize (or at least, to avoid criticizing) beliefs of other cultures.  Here's the passage he objected to:
At its extreme, this tendency to take a kid-gloves attitude toward culture is what results in charges of Islamophobia or (worse) racism any time someone criticizes the latest depravity perpetrated by Muslim extremists. Yes, it is their right to adhere to their religion. No, that does not make it right for them to behead non-Muslims, hang gays, subjugate women, and sell children into slavery. And the fact that most of their leaders have refused to take a stand against this horrifying inhumanity makes them, and the ideology they use to justify it, complicit in it.
He responded, in part, as follows:
ISIS is engaged in civil wars, and 99% of their victims are also Muslim.  Surely, Muslims on the whole are not in favor of slaughtering other Muslims...  (P)ointing at Islamic ideology as the culprit, rather than a complex set of political forces, just seems way too "Fox-Newsish" for a sophisticated blog like yours.  If Islam was inherently incompatible with pluralistic democratic values, then countries like Turkey couldn't exist.  The Islamic masses in Egypt rose up in a mass exercise of democratic revolution in 2012... only to be slapped down by a US-backed secular dictatorship.  There's just so much going on, with so many different factors...  I look at the 6 million Muslims living in the US and peacefully contributing... to blame it all on "their ideology," to say their beliefs are to blame for, among other things, the US-backed Saudi regime.... it just seems unfair.
Which certainly made me give some serious thought to what I'd written, and even more so, to what I think about ideology vis-à-vis responsibility for immoral actions.

Of course, in (at the very least) one sense, he is right; by attributing to "Islamic ideology" the atrocities of ISIS, and the lack of human rights in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and many other Muslim countries, I avoided one fallacy by leaping headlong into another.  To wit: the single-cause fallacy, which is considering complex events to have a simple cause.  (Commonly-cited examples are "The American Civil War was caused by slavery" and "World War I was caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.")

There's a lot more to the chaos in the Middle East than Islamic ideology; there's tribal factionalism, the history of exploitation and colonialism by western Europe and the United States, and the have/have not distribution of oil wealth, to name three.  It is facile to say, simply, "Those evil Muslims!" and be done with it.

The Islamic recitation of faith [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But still, I have to ask the question: to what extent does ideology bear the blame for some of the evil done in its name?  And by extension, do the peaceful adherents of a religion -- for example, the six million Muslims in the United States that my friend referenced -- also share some of the responsibility?

And it's not Islam alone, of course.  Christianity has much to answer for, as well, and I'm not just talking about events in the distant past such as the Inquisition and the Crusades.  The current upsurge of anti-gay legislation in several countries in Africa, some of which calls for the death penalty, is largely the result of American fundamentalists encouraging and financing such measures.  Do the stay-at-home members of the Christian churches from which these "missionaries" come bear some of the blame, if for no other reason because of their silence?

Does Christian ideology as a whole?

Now, I know that because of the huge variety of beliefs within Christianity (and Islam as well), to talk about a "Christian ideology" is a little ridiculous.  You have to wonder whether, for example, a Pentecostal and a Unitarian Universalist would agree on anything beyond "God exists."  But as my friend also pointed out, there are passages in the Christian Bible that are as horrific as anything the Qu'ran has to offer; stoning to death for minor offenses, men being struck dead right and left for damn near every reason you can think of, not to mention a prophet who called in bears to tear apart 42 children who had teased him about being bald and a man who offered his daughters to be raped by a mob rather than inconvenience a couple of angels (who, presumably, could have taken care of themselves).  It's why I find it wryly amusing when I hear people say that they believe that every biblical passage is word-for-word true, and that they live their lives according to a literal interpretation of the biblical commands.  If they did so, they'd be in jail.

But to return to my original question; does an ideology, or its law-abiding followers, bear some of the blame for what the true believers do?  At the very least, for not speaking out more fervently against the deeds done in the name of their religion?

It's not a question that admits of easy answers.  I'm torn between feeling certain that the most basic truth is that you are only responsible for what you yourself do, and having the nagging thought that remaining silent in the face of depravity is itself an immoral act.  After all, one of the criticisms leveled against Americans by many Muslims in the Middle East is that we stand by silently and allow our leaders to continue pursuing exploitative and unjust actions.  How is their holding America, and all Americans, responsible for what some Americans have done in the Middle East any different from our holding Islam, and all Muslims, responsible for the actions of ISIS and the shari'a judges in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere?

I don't know.  But the moral ambiguity inherent in these sorts of situations should push us all to consider not only our acts, but our refusal to act, as carefully as we know how.  And we should all be less hesitant to repudiate the individuals who would use our religions, ethnicities, and nationalities to perpetrate evil in the world.


  1. As a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation, I'd have to say you're not going to find unanimity within that organization re: existence of God. And as regards the pluralistic democracy, Turkey, we are talking about the place where you can get put in jail for years for the crime of insulting the President. Right?

  2. Tyler, if you are going to use examples of unjust imprisonment to disqualify countries as democracies then the United States will be the first to go. Read the recent Rolling Stone article, "The Nation's Shame: The Injustice of Mandatory Minimums" for a small sampling of the horror in our country. If you are more irked by punishing political speech than you are victimless crimes... take a look at Chelsea Manning's 35 year sentence, the prosecution of James Risen, John Kiriakou, and a slew of other whisteblowers.

  3. I'll be convinced Islam is compatible with 21st Century Western democracies when I see a group of Muslims living in the West defend the right to blaspheme the Prophet (and the President), the right for fellow Muslims to leave the faith and equal rights for women and gays. Until then, those of us who wish to preserve what we've achieved in the West shouldn't be afraid to criticize ideologies opposed to these values. I agree with Sam Harris that Islam is a motherlode of bad ideas. The other two monotheisms are too, although they have largely been tamed & neutered after a few centuries of coevolution with secular culture.

  4. I find myself at a loss about this as well. We shouldn't judge all Christians or Muslims by the acts of the extremists claiming to represent either group. As an atheist who has looked into the testaments, more so than most people who use them as a basis for their belief system, I have found more than enough reason to dismiss the idea of religion, notional or devout.
    Let's be honest, it is the extremists are the biggest problem.
    The desire to mould politics along the lines of religious belief is counter productive in my view - and counter evolutionary.
    Something that angers the non-religious among us, as Gordon has mentioned, the quiet we hear from the moderates. They can even seem less disturbed and disgusted by the atrocities committed by extremists (note I said 'seem'). That may be because, as atheists we are rather quick to spot and shame/ridicule religion for the darker elements we see. Religious folk seem less active in attacking these things or considering the value of their own faith in relation to the monsters that it obviously creates.
    There are atheist blogs bringing us events and commentary about the actions of fundamentalists in our own countries and also shocking events overseas from nut-cases representing many religions. I've found atheist blogs hosted by ex-muslims who seem to pay all attention to the atrocities enacted by Islamic extemists. That stuff is also good to see.
    In many places, Islam has not altered to become a more modern and adaptive faith. Christianity has in many places but atheists like me ask, "must this old belief, incompatable with modern societies, be dragged through into modern lifestyles despite the sometimes ridiculous and hammy alterations needed to still make it fit?"
    I'm slowly getting better at accepting things, but extremism is something not to be accepted, not to stay quiet about. I find moderate religious beliefs a little easier to accept in others, but for their own identity as humans, I wish they were just as vocal in their disgust for extremism as atheists are.

    All the best,