The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

Episode 020: The Argument from Atrocity


Should we reject Christianity because of the harmful deeds done in its name? Some have said so. This episode explains what is wrong with that line of reasoning.

Glenn Peoples


Now that the smoke has cleared…


“It’s only the religious who make threats….”


  1. Nathan

    The first premise…

    1) If those who hold any belief are also responsible for carrying out horrible acts against their
    fellow human being, then that belief is false.

    This is obviously flawed before we even begin. I doubt any sensible person would agree with it, and wouldn’t be in the slightest bit surprised if some say that 1) as stated above is misrepresentative or disingenuous. To paraphrase 1) :

    1) If those who believe in any idea ‘A’ are responsible for committing ‘B’, and ‘B’ is immoral, then ‘A’ is false. ‘A’ may be any idea, proven or not.

    Say for example A=gravity, and B=rape. To say that gravity is false on the grounds that some of those who believe in gravity also commit rape is preposterous. Surely everyone would agree.

    Can 1) be rephrased to something that better reflects what those who state it really mean? For example

    1) If those holding a religious belief feel compelled or convicted by their religious beliefs to commit atrocious acts in the name of or defence of their religion, then those beliefs are false.

    I suspect the conclusion you came to would still hold, but would the journey to this conclusion be the same? Would the conclusion carry more weight if 1) was phrased better?

  2. Hey Nathan, on the face of it, 1) looks like such an obviously silly claim that surely to many people it looks like a misrepresentation. The problem is, when skeptics raise this kind of objection, they never actually spell out what their argument is.

    Yes, when it’s explained in black and white premise 1) looks insane. To be fair to the skeptics, however, I did try to make it a little more nuanced, anticipating the objection that Christians atrocities are carried out on the basis of their Christian beliefs and I did address that slightly more qualified premise as well. So I started with the simplistic argument with all its flaws, then as I went through and discussed its flaws, I suggested some ways that skeptics might make the argument stronger to overcome my criticisms. The improved version that I addressed – that Christians have done terrible things because of their Christian beliefs, is the same as the one you offered, so I don’t think anyone who uses the argument from atrocity really has a complaint to make about me being disingenuous.

    I responded to this more qualified premise by saying that 1) Often it’s actually not true that the atrocities in question were done for theological reasons, and political reasons were equally or more important, and 2) This still cuts both ways, because the atheistic belief of some atheists has led to them carrying out atrocities as well.

    I argued that the stronger version of the argument fails no less than the weaker version that you reject.

  3. Presumably there is ambiguity in the modified version of 1)

    For example do these people commit the atrocities because they correctly discern that their beliefs require them to do the action in question, or do the people mistakenly perceive that it does It seems to me this is important, the fact that someone can misinterpret a position so that it entails something is not an argument against it.

    Second, does the religious belief itself entail the action be performed or is it the religious belief plus some other beliefs that entails it, if the latter is the case then the problem could be these other beliefs.

    Third, if the belief itself correctly interpreted entails that the action should be performed. One still needs to ask whether the belief is an essential tenant of the religion or is it a inessential feature of the religion. If it’s the latter then the argument only shows that one inessential part of the religion is mistaken.

    Finally it seems that there is an odd argument here in that one seems to be saying that the truth or falsity of a belief is entailed by the moral effects of accepting the belief. But what if there was a myth which was such that if people believed it made them behave more morally this seems possible yet if it is it suggests that morality. Does not entail truth in the way the objector seems to suggest here.

  4. colin

    Hi Glenn.

    I’m part way this podcast but wanted to stop and say that I particularly loved your comment that the argument from atrocity could be used against atheism, because atheists are responsible for such a terrible argument. thank you for making me laugh out loud.

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