Are Religious Beliefs Causes?

I’ve imported some posts from my old blog that might be relevant here. They are those posted before 2016.

To answer this question, one could begin with a philosophical quandary: are beliefs of any sort causes of human action? I expect that most would answer this question with a resounding “of course,” but it is not entirely moot. Without regressing into the metaphysics of free will, the issue has to do with the basic agents of human action and societal development. Marx, for example, placed the locus of social change and indeed all of history not primarily in the hands of individual actors, motivated by core beliefs, but in social structures and material infrastructures. It is not hard to conceive of cases in which actions are not primarily motivated by beliefs, much less fundamental ones.

For example, human beings have sets of nearly automatic reflex behaviours. In these cases, beliefs are not necessary causes of action, unless we take a very broad view of what constitutes a belief. Of course, the kinds of actions that are ostensibly the result of beliefs are more complex than, say, jumping at a loud unexpected sound. But reams of empirical studies show that things like patterns of consumption, movement, diet, health, and so forth, are determined by infrastructural and economic factors, among others. And even here it is not clear if beliefs are a necessary cause for action (again depending on how we define beliefs) and they are almost certainly not sufficient in themselves.

Reciprocally, one could begin with a similarly abstract question: what are the causes of beliefs? Sociological and psychological research firmly establishes that beliefs are demographically predictable, and thus, determined in part by a wide variety of “social” (for lack of a better word) processes. The social determinism need not be due to overt forces like coercion or propaganda; the subtle cultural workings of everyday life have a discernable effect on people’s world views. In short, no matter how rational and well-established your beliefs, they are, in a sense, not entirely your own. So even if beliefs are subsidiary causes of action, the beliefs themselves might have “external” causes, so to speak.

In ever-lasting tension with these views of human belief and action is a taken-for-granted assumption that underlies nearly every extant society: human beings are capable of independent, rational thought; beliefs are at least in part a result of thought processes; beliefs cause actions; thus, people are responsible for their own actions. This is the fundamental basis for virtually all legal systems and democratic political systems. It not only expects responsibility, but garners reward: meritocracies require the assumption that success is in large part the result of individual thought and action.

This philosophical dilemma sets the stage to go about answering the title question, and indeed, why it should even be asked in the first place.

In a variety of contexts, the question is being answered in the negative. But I won’t beat around the bush; here I am specifically concerned with the causal efficacy of religious beliefs for terrorist acts.

A growing number of voices are challenging the narrative that religious beliefs are the motivation behind terrorism. To paraphrase a step above a strawman, the argument goes thus: horrendous acts carried out by so-called religious extremists are not really motivated by core religious beliefs, but rather are the product of some other set of social, political, economic, etc. factors. Terrorist attacks against infidels ostensibly in response for a perceived insult or blasphemy against Islam are better explained as a political grievance against longstanding imperialist policies of the West in Muslim countries.

For example, this Jacobin piece aims to critique the reduction of terrorism to religious beliefs. It takes aim at atheists who believe that theistic beliefs are a key determinant in atrocious (ostensibly) religiously-motivated acts. The piece rejects the foundationalism of atheism by arguing that religious beliefs are not the logical consequences of more fundamental theistic beliefs, but are the product of various other social and cultural factors. Religious beliefs are highly interpretative, and thus trying to address religiously-motivated terrorism by undermining theism or the logic of religious doctrines will be ineffective. Ultimately, we are told that religious acts of terror are really just political, anyway. And atheism is just a proxy for racism and imperialism.

The piece strikes me as both correct and horribly sophomoric. The piece is right in that religion manifests in a multitude of ways depending on contexts. For example, some people create evangelical empires, others appeal to religious beliefs to capture political followers. Powerful hierarchical systems based on religion are formed. Some occupy their highest echelons to the end of great personal wealth and power, while others appeal to religion to give meaning to impoverished lives. Some abuse children and gain protection from powerful religious sects. Others blow themselves up because those with political grievances can successfully appeal to religious arguments to convince desperate fanatics to commit suicide. But this is merely to say that beliefs are expressed differently in different contexts, not that theistic beliefs or religious doctrine play no determining role in these various manifestations.

The chief problem with the kinds of arguments found in the Jacobin piece is that the real causes to which they reduce religiously-motivated acts looks suspiciously like beliefs. It seems that most who doubt the efficacy (and thus the culpability) of religious beliefs don’t actually hold that beliefs in general are incapable of motivating action. They are not structural determinists, nor fatalists. Indeed, the same people who reject religious beliefs as causes will just cite other equally ethereal beliefs as causes for the current state of affairs. Terrorism isn’t motivated by religious beliefs, it’s motivated by political grievances. Religious systems of beliefs can’t possibly motivate action, but neoliberal and imperialist ideology can. Thus, these apparently anti-reductionist arguments merely replace one reductionism with another, and thus force us into a false dichotomy of deciding between which beliefs are more culpable.

But reductionism doesn’t need to be ontological, just expedient: you break down phenomena into separate cooperating causes to make your analysis more simple. A plausible but imprecise answer is to accept that many causes can act concurrently, or that beliefs are not discrete things, but multi-dimensional. Why can’t beliefs be simultaneously political and religious? After all, politics and religion aren’t reducible. Politics can be a means for religion, or religion can be a means for politics. In many cases they are indistinguishable.

Is there a peculiar trend here to see religious beliefs as somehow less casually effectual than others? Why should this be the case? Religion itself functions as a system of power and control over personal freedom. It dictates behaviours and morals. It exploits wealth and perpetuates class systems and structural inequalities. It often acts in concert with other economic, political, nationalistic, ethnic, and social systems of inequality. Challenging the logics – the beliefs – that underlie various manifestations of religious thought is no different than challenging the logic of ideologies that uphold racial, nationalistic, or gender-based inequalities.

For example, some people find deep guiding identity in notions of race or ethnicity. Like religion, race and ethnicity is open to interpretation. Even people who ostensibly claim the same ethnicity will create different meanings out of their notions of ethnicity. But when real, actual, racists couch their belief in racial inequality in pseudoscience or specious arguments, are we to say that pointing out the flaws in their logic is wrong-headed, because race is interpretative? Because there are no foundational beliefs that we can universally point to that motivate racial identity? Because racism is really a function of some other structure or process? That racist beliefs are not actual causes of action?

Or is it that we are merely interested in efficacious strategies, not principles? Is this why many people are so reticent to target religious belief itself as a cause of horrible acts? That it is merely ineffectual? That we should focus on other causes instead? The Jacobin piece is in a roundabout way correct in pointing out that atheism cannot be expected to be either a sufficient or necessary foil to religious fanaticism. But this seems to be merely to be a classic issue of identifying motivations for action and behaviour change. Scientific evidence does not decisively motivate people to quit smoking or act on climate change. Rationality has a limited capacity to compel action. Likewise, pointing out that someone’s religious beliefs are ridiculous or nonsensical will most often be ineffective in guiding them to more tolerable actions. But while the argument is too difficult to expound here, I think all sorts of blasphemy, not least of which atheism, can indeed be (limitedly) effective in undermining religious fanaticism.

I think part of the issue with regards to Islamist violence surrounds questions of blame. Indeed, the possibility for religiously-motivated oppression and violence to flourish in Islamic countries is the result of a long history of imperialism, perpetuated in large part by Western governments. For example, it is accepted in many policy circles that the so-called “War on Terror,” far from fulfilling its goals, has increased political unrest, religious zealotry, and the risk of terrorism. There are competing politics of solidarity at play, for example, in prioritizing concerns of rising Islamophobia over concerns of rising Islamist fundamentalist ideologies. And these competing concerns reveals some of the absurd consequences of reductionism. Islamophobes are critiqued explicitly for their beliefs. But how could anti-Islamic bigotry motivate violence if the Islamist beliefs themselves are incapable of such a thing?

This is a politically charged and heavily contested arena, and if for no reason other than that, one needs to be critical of their own sensitivities and political motivations. I am more concerned with the ill consequences of religious beliefs than others. But I certainly don’t deny the structural factors at play, and recognize that reductionism of all kinds need be avoided. However, why should we pretend that religious beliefs are not capable of motivating horrendous acts? And this is putting it as timidly as possible. I am as concerned with sociological explanations as anyone, but sociological explanations inevitably become normative. They can, as in this case, imbue some grievances with more moral urgency than others. Or they can serve to shield certain cherished beliefs from criticism. But I, for one, am perplexed by what religious fanatics might think of such sociological explanations, who would likely be surprised to learn that their deepest beliefs are really just the product of someone else’s political machinations.


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