Thursday, September 11, 2014

Religion, ISIS, Atheist Hypocrisy, Confirmation Bias, and Tribalism

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Several recent atheist commentators have rightly condemned ISIS, citing it as an example of religion gone horribly wrong. But then they go further, using the example of ISIS to condemn religion as a whole. Is this a valid move? If not, then why not? And what clues, if any, does the activity of ISIS give us about religion as a whole?


Atheists Condemning Religion via ISIS

The theologian Randal Rauser has one of a handful of Christian blogs that I find quite fascinating and worth following, if only irregularly. I haven't been following it long and though he seems to focus a bit more attention on apologetic-style arguments than I tend to appreciate, he does so in a clever and fair manner, with pleas for nuance that are often missing from most others of that ilk.

Rauser recently posted a brief article called "If we all reasoned like the atheist ideologue" which made an excellent point, but I think did so in an incredibly unilluminating way. In it, Rauser attacks the notion that ISIS's mere existence is an example of problems caused by religion:
In the last few weeks the internet has seen a flurry of armchair analysis by atheistic ideologues offering their ruminations on ISIS. Desperately short in their understanding of the geopolitical, social, cultural and historical factors at play in the Middle East, they sashay into the hornet’s nest and opine that the problem is “religion”.
Rauser doesn't link directly to any such commentary, but here's one that I saw on Lawrence Krauss' Facebook feed that I think fits the bill.
"ISIS is a barbaric reminder: no such thing as a religion of peace, certainly not in Islam today nor Judaism and Christianity throughout history." (link)
Now, I am a fan of Lawrence Krauss - in both the Facebook and more general sense. I've read (and reviewed) his books for years. I interviewed Lawrence Krauss last spring, at a showing of his film The Unbelievers, and got my first edition of The Physics of Star Trek autographed. But, as Krauss himself often points out, there are no authorities in science, only experts ... and as such I am not in any sense obligated to agree with everything he says.

So I absolutely disagree with Krauss's point that there is "no such thing as a religion of peace." First of all, it's not true as a stand-alone statement, because many examples of peaceful religions can be found (and warlike non-religious teachings).

But even in the context of ISIS - a group of people that clearly hold to a barbaric, non-peaceful religious viewpoint - the line between evidence and conclusion is tenuous here. The barbarity of ISIS is so extreme that it actually serves to highlight how benign most Islamic interpretations are. Pointing at a clearly-aberrant example as if it were normative is not something you can do!

It is this second issue that Rauser focuses on (again, in general ... he doesn't specifically cite the Krauss comment):
What if we all adopted this degree of inane, ideologically driven analysis? What would the world look like?
For starters, if a woman cut you off in traffic, you wouldn’t blame her. Instead, you would conclude that women shouldn’t drive cars, period.
And if your neighbor’s boy damaged your flower garden while attempting to earn a skateboarding badge for Boy Scouts, you’d conclude that youth organizations should be abolished.
And if your son twisted his ankle doing track and field, you’d cast a pall on all youth sporting events.
And if you had a bad dinner at the local Chinese restaurant, you’d eschew all Chinese (or better yet, all “ethnic”) food.
This is the degree of absurdity we are dealing with when folks with little-to-no understanding of ISIS and the complex geopolitical, social, cultural and historical factors at play in Syria and Iraq offer their absurdly crass analysis that the problem is intimately related to “religion”.
I have two main points about Rauser's attack.

  1. His examples are incorrect.
  2. He doesn't explain the actual problem (which is far worse, I think, than mere crassness).

The examples all show a case where a single piece of evidence leads to an extreme general conclusion. This is known as the hasty generalization fallacy, and Rauser is right that it would be a real problem ... if that were the actual fallacy being committed in these cases.

But it's not. How do we know? Because Rauser has himself identified these people as "atheist ideologues," which suggests that these are established people who have already concluded that atheism is the proper way of viewing the world and religion is problematic. They may have committed the hasty generalization fallacy at some point in the past, but having read several books by these people, it's clear that it's not nearly as hasty as Rauser's examples suggest. They didn't look at one piece of evidence against religion and arrive at a generalization that religion was a problem. Rauser just wrote a 15-part review of a biography of a man who abandoned religion for atheism, so he presumably knows there's more than one piece of evidence at work here, which means this is easily classified as a straw man fallacy.

But there is a serious problem here, although it's not actually a logical fallacy per se, so much as a methodological fallacy. It is, in my opinion, one of the worst cognitive errors that we have to deal with in our search for a better understanding of the world: Confirmation Bias.


Confirmation Bias and Religion

Confirmation bias is the tendency to give more weight or significance to results or evidence that confirm an already-established opinion than we do to evidence that contradicts that opinion.

In this case, the error that the atheists are making in pointing to ISIS is that they are being very selective in the evidence they look at. Again, go back to the Krauss quote. He points to ISIS as a barbaric reminder that there is no religion of piece, but in doing so clearly ignores the many pieces of evidence that suggest religions are peaceful. You don't even have to leave Islam to find far more peaceful Muslims - and Muslims who say that their peaceful acts are motivated by their religious faith - than Muslims who are driven by hate toward violence.

And, as a scientist, Krauss certainly knows about confirmation bias. One of the major goals of the scientific enterprise is to minimize it. And he pretty much mocked poor confirmation bias on the religious side, quite deftly, here.

This is the real irony of Rauser's attack, for me, because confirmation bias is for me the largest problem with religion.
My issue with religion is not a fundamental rejection of mystical or supernatural influences, but rather that religion adopts a methodology in which confirmation bias is not only allowed, but encouraged.
My strongest evidence for this view comes in the central role of testimony in religious life. Outside of intellectual circles, religion is largely affirmed, in day-to-day worship, by anecdotal testimonies to the role of God in one's life. As someone who has spent most of his life on the outside of religion, I cannot tell you the number of times someone has tried to explain to me how God has actively transformed their life. They were an alcoholic or an abusive husband and then they got right with God, and they felt a transformation come over them, and this is proof of God's existence.

I attended an evangelical church for a time that was particularly intriguing in this regard, with relatively common testimonies from the congregation. For some context: the minister of this church had once been a construction worker, fell off the fifth story of a building, landed face-first on cement, and despite being so bad that doctors assumed he would die, he somehow walked out of the hospital about a week later. And, during his convalescence, he had a vision of Jesus. So it's absolutely understandable that this particular church put a lot of faith in testimony. (To date, I have no reason in particular to doubt the man's claims about the series of events. Nor, though I don't agree with his explanation, can I particularly fault him for attributing miraculous significance to them.)

Testimonies from others were far less impressive, but still moving and significant. They were stories about how turning to Christianity and handing their life over to God made real differences in their lives. At one point, a man talked about how God had cured him of diabetes and helped him stop smoking. At another point, around Christmas time, a woman talked about how money was tight and she was going to have to avoid paying important bills so she could get clothes and gifts for her children. At the register, however, the scanner had some sort of malfunction, and the clothes came up much lower than expected. I don't remember the particulars, but I think the clothes came up for a few cents apiece, and the woman ended up saving over a hundred dollars all told.

If you stripped away all testimony of this kind from all religions, it's not clear to me that much religion would be left. There might be some logical arguments that would have impressed Aristotle fans, but religions wouldn't be living, breathing entities that influence lives directly in this world.

But every single one of the testimony examples above is a glaring case of confirmation bias. If you were to sit down and think, "How could I discern the real truth of religious experiences?" then you could hardly construct a worse methodology of doing it than asking people of faith when something good happened in their life that they felt was attributed to God. (I encourage you to try, in the comments section.)

The difference, of course, is that religious people do not, by and large, know about confirmation bias. As such, they can absolutely be forgiven for not taking steps to avoid it. Atheists, on the other hand - particularly active secularists, skeptics, religious critics, and "atheist ideologues" - absolutely know about confirmation bias. Using ISIS as a bludgeon to confirm your views without proper respect for the counter-argument is, either consciously or not, absolute hypocrisy.


What Can Be Said About Religion and ISIS?

It is perfectly valid, however, to point at ISIS as an example of how religion can lead someone to do horrible things. In a recent interview, even the Muslim moderate Reza Aslan admits that this is a logically valid interpretation of Islam (though not one that he agrees with).

But if an atheist is going to attack religion, they need to be sure that they are placing ISIS within a much broader context of why religions produce these sorts of negative outcomes. This is hard to do in a tweet or a Facebook status update, of course, or even in a blog post. As Rauser points out: the various non-religious factors leading to ISIS' rise are very complex.

One person who I think has a firm grasp of this nuance, though isn't always necessarily the best at getting it across, is the atheist Sam Harris. His post today, "Sleepwalking Toward Armageddon," is characteristic of his balance of respect for Islamic people together with disdain for the dogmatic extremism that he feels comes from religion:
Which will come first, flying cars and vacations to Mars, or a simple acknowledgment that beliefs guide behavior and that certain religious ideas—jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy—reliably lead to oppression and murder? It may be true that no faith teaches people to massacre innocents exactly—but innocence, as the President surely knows, is in the eye of the beholder. Are apostates “innocent”? Blasphemers? Polytheists? Islam has the answer, and the answer is “no.” 
[...] I would not want to create the impression that most Muslims support ISIS, nor would I want to give any shelter or inspiration to the hatred of Muslims as people. In drawing a connection between the doctrine of Islam and jihadist violence, I am talking about ideas and their consequences, not about 1.5 billion nominal Muslims, many of whom do not take their religion very seriously.
Then he launches into what I think is the absolutely proper point about religion that atheists should be making, if they are inclined to draw a larger point out of ISIS:
Religion produces a perverse solidarity that we must find some way to undercut. It causes in-group loyalty and out-group hostility, even when members of one’s own group are behaving like psychopaths.
Generally speaking, I think it's safe to say that religion is one of the most persistently tribal elements of our modern world. Although religious teachings that encourage conflict don't help, my view (and, to some degree, apparently Harris') is that it is really the particular group affiliation, and self-identification that so often comes with it, that create the strife we want to avoid.

Indeed, Rauser himself seems to recognize that this is the problem. When returning to deal with criticism that religion can exacerbate conflict, he points out that so can patriotism. But isn't that precisely because patriotism often, like many religious teachings, exacerbate the "in-group loyalty and out-group hostility" that Harris is specifically condemning?

Look at the standard array of non-religious atrocities from the 20th century, which theists are so fond of justly rolling out to prove that religion isn't the sole source of atrocities: Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, forced eugenics, social darwinism. (They sometimes throw Hitler in there, but calling Hitler non-religious is a bit of a fudge.) Aren't all of these means of creating and enforcing tribalist structures? Throw in a healthy dose of authoritarianism, and you've got a recipe for disaster, even without adding supernatural religious beliefs and heavenly rewards to the mix.

My instinct is to side with Harris' statement a bit, though, that religion tends to exacerbate this situation. When your "in-group" includes God and the "out-group" rejects God, how could it do anything but exacerbate the situation? Certainly, I personally know of no individuals who want full-scale war in the Middle East more than a handful of fundamentalist evangelical Christian acquaintances who believe that it is both inevitable and will usher in the return of Jesus.

But then again, that might be confirmation bias, so I will hold off rather than make a hasty generalization fallacy.
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