Rifqa Bary is a seventeen year old Christian nee Muslim who has apparently narrowly escaped being forcibly returned to her native Sri Lanka and killed. After secretly converting to evangelical Christianity, Rifqa attempted to live a double life with her devout Muslim parents, but was found out. She fled to Florida from her home in Ohio, and was taken in by a Christian minister. In a startling display of dogmatic fervor, the Bary family quickly liquidated a jewelry business worth several hundred thousand dollars. They then declared themselves indigent, got court appointed lawyers in Florida, and attempted to have Rifqa returned to them. According to her court testimony, her father was clear with her — he intended to kill her. It is unclear whether he intended to kill her on U.S. soil and then return to Sri Lanka (as a conquering hero) or take her to Sri Lanka to kill her in the presence of her extended family. It is clear, though, that Muslim law was going to be upheld.
I’m reminded of a quote from Greta Christina:
Religion has the power to bend the moral compass to the point where people will defend or trivialize or explain away the horrific abuse of children — the literal, physical and sexual, institutional abuse of thousands of actual human children — and still decry putting a nail through a cracker as a vile offense against all that is right and good.
One of my readers is fond of attempting to use the burden of proof against atheists. She claims (indirectly here, but directly on other forums) that in the absence of peer reviewed sociological or psychological studies that conclusively demonstrate a causal relationship between religion and psychological dysfunction, atheists must concede that there is no reason to believe such a relationship exists.
I contend that she is wrong, though many of her points are valid in and of themselves. She claims — correctly — that the human psyche is incredibly complex, and that linking a single factor such as religion to a single act in any individual person is a wild goose chase. There are just too many variables. She further asserts — correctly — that it is impossible to know whether religion is the chicken or the egg. Do crazy people flock to religion or does religion make people crazy? It’s definitely hard to tell.
I believe Alison is missing the big picture. For one thing, she’s coming at this as if there wasn’t any evidence outside of peer reviewed studies that demonstrates the relationship. It’s difficult for me, having been raised by devout Christians, to understand why it’s difficult for her to see the relationship. Christianity (and Islam) teach people from childhood that there are things which are true despite any and all evidence they might see. In fact, they are often taught that if they succumb to the sin of doubt, they will be horrendously tortured for all of eternity. Science, logic, and critical thinking are tricks of a magical and inscrutable evil being whose sole purpose in life is to capture the immortal soul of those who are foolish enough to believe their own observations.
Taking any particular religion out of the equation for a moment, there’s no need to search far for the proof that this kind of upbringing is psychologically damaging. Any psychologist, given a dysfunctional adult who has been forcibly indoctrinated into bizarre, antisocial beliefs as a child, will quickly diagnose them with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or some other illness caused by mental abuse. If Alison wishes to take on the entire Psychology establishment and claim that childhood indoctrination into bizarre beliefs is not causally related to adult dysfunction, I wish her well.
Going back to the story of Rifqa Barry, we must ask ourselves several pointed questions:
- What belief structure convinced Mohammed Bary (Rifqa’s father) that it is a good idea to kill his daughter?
- How did Mohammed come to his belief structure?
- Is it plausible to suppose that if Mohammed was a material rationalist, he would be on a similar quest to kill his daughter for converting from Islam to Christianity?
We must admit, I believe, that the answers are clear. Mohammed wants to kill his daughter because of religion. There is no other plausible justification for his attitudes and actions. Now, we can ask ourselves more questions:
- Are there a substantial number of stories similar to this one?
- Is religion a common denominator?
- Have the people committing these atrocities been shown to have chemically caused mental illness such as Bipolar Disorder or Schizophrenia (as opposed to environmentally caused mental illness such as PTSD)?
- Is there a set of similar stories involving the same kind of motivations and actions which occur devoid of religious indoctrination?
- Is this set of stories comparable in size to those involving religion?
Again, we must concede that it is remarkably difficult to find examples of people who have not been diagnosed with any clinical illnesses who nonetheless commit atrocious acts, particularly towards family members and loved ones. In fact, we are faced with a remarkable dilemma:
- IF religion does not cause people to commit this particular kind of atrocity, THEN we must concede that people who would commit such atrocities are highly likely to become religious. This must be true because there are so few cases of this kind which are devoid of fanatic religiosity.
- However, we observe that the vast majority of people who commit such atrocities have been indoctrinated into religion since early childhood. If our theory is correct, and religion is not the cause of such atrocity, we should expect a proportionate number of non-indoctrinated people from non-religious cultures to convert to religion and then commit atrocities. We do not see this phenomenon.
At this point, we might make the objection that there are plenty of cases of bizarre atrocity devoid of religion. One need only look at Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China to see that non-religious people can and do commit atrocities, and often turn on their own family members for the sake of the state or a particular political ideology.
This objection answers itself. If we return to our observation that childhood indoctrination into bizarre belief systems causes adult dysfunction, we see clearly that these two classes of action (political and religious atrocity) are the same, and they’re just hiding behind different kinds of bizarre and irrational ideologies.
At this point, we have a substantial body of evidence for our claim: Across cultures, and throughout recorded history, the overwhelming majority of atrocities committed by families against their own seem to have been strongly correlated to an indoctrinated ideology. There is a startling lack of atrocities against family members among cultures that do not subscribe to indoctrinated ideologies advocating atrocities against family members.
The logical position must be the belief that indoctrinated ideologies advocating atrocities against family members cause atrocities against family members.
At this point, the skeptic seems to have two choices:
- Demonstrate that Christianity and Islam are not indoctrinated ideologies, and that they do not often advocate atrocities against family members.
- Concede that Christianity and Islam, when practiced as indoctrinated ideologies, cause atrocities against family members.
Alternatively, she could demonstrate that there is a sizable occurrence of intra-family atrocity which occurs in non-indoctrinated families, such that there is no appreciable difference between religious and non-religious families. I believe this is unlikely, since it would have to have been missed by sociologists and anthropologists the world over.
To be thorough, I suppose I should note that run-of-the-mill child abuse is not the same as genital mutilation or honor killing. We are talking about two classes of behavior. Atrocities are acts of extreme mutilation or murder. Abuse is overly severe punishment, mental abuse, and similar behaviors that appear to be common to all cultures, regardless of ideological bent.
Next, I should address the form of the argument Alison has made. She asserts, essentially, that in the absence of peer reviewed sociological studies, we should not believe that religion causes atrocity. This argument contains a hidden premise which is simply not true — ONLY peer reviewed sociological papers are proof of any sociological phenomenon. This puts a horrible burden on sociologists. Anything that they have not proven doesn’t exist! Alison has very cleverly shifted the burden of proof. By pointing out the complexity of human behavior and thought, she has also subtly insinuated that either religion is solely responsible for atrocity or it is not responsible at all. Clearly, cause and effect in human behavior is not so linear, but there are factors which are crucial in causing a particular event.
I also wonder: Is it possible that the reason nobody has bothered to prove that ideological indoctrination causes intra-family atrocity is because there is no good reason to believe otherwise? Since we do not observe such atrocity in statistically significant portions of non-ideological cultures, why wouldn’t we assume that the ideology is the cause?
Since Alison is nothing if not thorough, I must attempt to anticipate her next possible objection. I have attempted to draw a straight line from ideological indoctrination to one particular act of atrocity — intra-family atrocity. Perhaps, even having argued convincingly for a causal relationship, I have not established the greater claim, that religion causes societal and personal dysfunction.
I will concede that at this point, this objection could be valid. However, I believe a little more extrapolation will prove the larger point:
- There is a class of acts — intra-family atrocity — which is causally linked to indoctrinated ideology.
- There is a class of religion, including large swaths of Christianity and Islam, which is an indoctrinated ideology.
- Intra-family atrocity is not the only act advocated by indoctrinated ideologies, including Christianity and Islam.
- It is reasonable to conclude that since the causal relationship between intra-family violence and indoctrinated ideology is well established, it is very likely that other acts advocated by indoctrinated ideology would also be causally linked when we observe them in adherents.
We can observe the truth of this reasoning in more mundane behaviors. There are millions of Christians who genuinely believe that they need to pray over their food before they eat. As far as I can tell, there are virtually no atheists who believe the same thing. It is hard to argue that praying over food is not caused by religious belief. It is also hard to argue that every Christian who prays over food is simply conforming to a social norm. There are some, perhaps many or most, who truly believe that their prayer has a real effect on their food. This behavior is dysfunctional in the strictest sense because it does not conform to observable reality. Thinking a request to an unseen deity has never demonstrably changed the universe in any observable way, including removing pathogens from food.
While this observation may seem trite, I believe it is crucial to understanding why indoctrinated ideologies are most certainly the cause of societal dysfunction. We have now seen that two types of behavior on opposite ends of the spectrum are both certainly causally linked to indoctrinated ideologies. This observation allows us to make a strongly supported speculation: Any dysfunctional act of any severity which is advocated by indoctrinated ideology is likely to be committed by adherents of that ideology.
Finally, then, we seem to have reached a reasonable conclusion. Religion which falls in the class of indoctrinated ideology seems in all cases to advocate actions which are to some degree or another societally dysfunctional. We have every reason to suppose that indoctrinated people will commit these actions more than their non-indoctrinated counterparts. Regardless of the number or frequency of such acts, then, we can definitively say that Religion Causes Societal Dysfunction. Additionally, we can observe that the principle clinical measure of mental dysfunction is behavior. Since atrocities are behaviors, and individuals commit them, it is already proven that religion causes personal mental dysfunction. It seems irrelevant at this point to quibble over the question of how much dysfunction religious indoctrination causes. If it causes any, then the claim is valid. It would seem to be up to the skeptic to prove that most indoctrinated religious people do not have any degree of religiously caused dysfunction. Otherwise, it seems clear that believing in an indoctrinated ideology of any kind causes dysfunction.
Finally, I suppose that it could be claimed that I’m reducing mental illness to behaviorism. Some mentally ill people behave quite normally, and some sane people do very irrational things. Behaviors are not a reliable indicator of true beliefs, since people can be coerced into behaviors they wouldn’t ordinarily do. I suppose this objection is valid, but does it matter? If we say that religious adherents are not mentally dysfunctional, and are being socially coerced into irrational behavior, is the end result any different than if they are mentally dysfunctional and committing irrational acts? At this point, the difference is semantic.
People shape cultures by their beliefs. If the cultures formed from these beliefs cause people to feel coerced into irrational behavior, are the beliefs not responsible for the behavior? Whether religious indoctrination causes mental dysfunction which causes dysfunctional behavior or religion indoctrination causes cultural norms which coerce dysfunctional behavior, the end result is the same — dysfunctional behavior is caused by religion.