An argument starved of reason …

I’ve read Daylight Atheism for a while, and was generally okay with it. Ebon Muse sometimes got arguments completely wrong, but at least there was often thought and reason behind the posts, even when he got them wrong. But lately the posts have taken on more of an irrational anti-religious stance, with a decline in the argumentation used to support those stances. And lately he’s made a post entitled “Theocracy Causes Famine” that’s so completely devoid of anything resembling reason that it’s just begging to be taken apart.

Start with the title: theocracy causes famine. This can’t be meant to be taken literally, right? It’s just an exaggeration tossed out for effect, right? Nope, while the post doesn’t start out proving anything like that, towards the end the summary rhetoric pretty much sets that out:

So, yes, famine is an “act of God” – but only in the sense that it’s caused by God’s self-appointed agents, the forces of religious darkness that don’t value human life and are perfectly willing to allow suffering and death. … Whenever I think of Somalia, I’m reminded that the brilliant, amazing Ayaan Hirsi Ali came from there. Could there be other minds like hers swept up in the famine, people with the same potential as her even now cradling their dying children or trudging to refugee camps? Will we stand by and permit the strangling darkness of theocracy to snuff out these bright sparks?

No, really, don’t hold back. Tell us what you really feel.

To make such bold comments, he’d better have some very good arguments for the idea that theocracy is the cause of famine in general, since that’s what he seems to be using the specific case of Somalia to prove. So, what are the arguments?

Let’s start, counter-intuitively enough, at the beginning, and the quote that kicks it all off. He quotes Johann Hari:

As recently as the mid-1980s, it was thought that famine was usually an “act of God” – a “biblical” failure of rains or crops or seasons. But in the 1990s Amartya Sen, the Nobel­ winning economist, showed this was wrong by proving one bold fact: “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.” Famine, it turns out, is not caused by a failure to produce food. It is caused by a failure to distribute food correctly – because the ruler is not accountable to the starving.

So, let’s look at the quote that brought Ebon Muse up short, shall we?

First, there’s a lot of room between “functioning democracies” and theocracies for other governing forms. If Sen is right, then what that would prove is that democracies avoid famines and other governing systems — no matter how secular, like communist nations — well, don’t. But that certainly doesn’t mean that theocracies are particularly bad at it to be singled out in that way.

Second, this itself might be misleading. After all, in cases of extreme natural disasters governing systems tend to break down into chaos. So, in the case of extreme weather conditions that cause famine, it’s quite likely that the democracies will cease to function, and so become non-functioning democracies. Thus, we must be careful to ensure that Sen is not relying on a “No True Scotsman” fallacy. I haven’t read the book and so can’t say … but Ebon Muse didn’t provide that either.

Thus, so far we don’t have a link to theocracy at all. But maybe that last bit can do it. Maybe we can say that the leaders aren’t accountable to the people in a theocracy and so if all of the data is right that’s the problem. Yeah, that’s the ticket … except there’s no reason to presume that. There’s nothing in theocracy that leads to that anymore than other non-democratic systems, and especially dictatorships. We’d need a definition of a theocracy and some examples to say for certain.

But, fourth, we have examples of what could be called theocracies — and have, by some people — such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps Israel (depending on who you believe). Do these nations suffer from famine in larger numbers than other nations? It seems not. So how can the link be made?

And this is all before we ask if those democratic nations had never had such conditions to cause famine, or if they never had what would be called famine conditions, and so there’s no link between government system and famine at all.

So, how does Ebon Muse defend his thesis from that quote?

Although a natural disaster, like drought, is often the trigger, the ultimate cause of famine is almost always a corrupt, greedy, or unaccountable government that siphons off food from the needy.

This is somewhat debatable; there may well be cases where there simply is not enough food to go around regardless of how it is distributed. But we need to ask this: what does this have to do with theocracy? Are they corrupt, greedy or unaccountable? And can democracies be corrupt, greedy or unaccountable? Well, yes, it seems like they can. And if you can claim that some provinces in a nation can experience famine, you can easily see how a corrupt democracy can be just as bad as anything else, even while we see no reason to single out theocracies in those categories.

But surely there are better arguments, right? Skipping the example of Ireland that he himself doesn’t claim was theocratically motivated, the next argument is to look at Somalia as an example:

And the same thing is happening now in Somalia. As Nicholas Kristof writes, the country is experiencing a historic drought – aggravated, no doubt, by climate change – but that alone wouldn’t have caused such a severe crisis. Kenya and Ethiopia, which are also affected by the drought, are coping better thanks to technological advances, like drought-resistant crops and irrigation systems.

Well, Ethiopia for quite some time now had been the poster child for famine and famine relief, and it seems unlikely that those famines were caused by theocracies since I doubt Ethiopia was one then. In fact, Ethiopia seemed to be a prime case for “We just don’t have the means to produce enough food”. Now it’s recovering, and that’s good, but it’s not exactly a good example of his case. How do we get to theocracy from this? Oh, right, we’re going to appeal to Somalia’s specific case and try to prove that it is something like theocracy that leaves it worse off:

But the closest thing to a government in Somalia is the violent, ignorant Islamist movement called the Shabab that’s the only authority in most of the country. Kristof puts it chillingly:

The area where large numbers of people are dying almost perfectly overlays the regions where the Shabab is in control.

So, there is a theocracy in parts of the country and people are worse off there — it doesn’t say that everything’s okay elsewhere — than they are in other places. Case proved … if one data point could prove a case, and it clearly doesn’t, and Ebon Muse knows that, so there isn’t an argument here so far. But surely we can build on this, right?

The Shabab has actively kept out aid workers and relief shipments, apparently viewing them as unwanted intrusions from corrupt and godless Western countries. They’ve blocked rivers and stolen water from villagers to divert it to farmers who pay them bribes. They’ve even tried to prevent starving people from fleeing.

So, there are three things that that area has done: kept out aid workers, stolen water in response to bribes, and prevented starving people from fleeing. Of these, only the first — and most minor — one has even a tangential relation to religion … and might even be true. It also might simply be a way to ensure that they preserve their political power and ability to get bribes and prosper themselves, because, you know, it’s not like the West ever sent troops into Somalia or anything, right? I fail to see how you can call that group typical of a theocracy or use that one data point to prove something about theocracy. At all. There’s no argument here. This is a rant, and an unreasonable one at that.

So, you’d think that another argument was coming, but no such luck. We end up at the closing rant, reproduced here in its entirety:

So, yes, famine is an “act of God” – but only in the sense that it’s caused by God’s self-appointed agents, the forces of religious darkness that don’t value human life and are perfectly willing to allow suffering and death. Famine is not inevitable, even in a warming and overpopulated world. The question is whether we, the defenders of humanity and civilization, the people who care about this life, are willing to act to prevent it.

Whenever I think of Somalia, I’m reminded that the brilliant, amazing Ayaan Hirsi Ali came from there. Could there be other minds like hers swept up in the famine, people with the same potential as her even now cradling their dying children or trudging to refugee camps? Will we stand by and permit the strangling darkness of theocracy to snuff out these bright sparks?

It’s an evocative and emotional statement … but you really only get to make those if you actually, you know, prove your case. And he hasn’t. There’s no rational case here … and yet he’s pretending there is. Why?

For a so-called advocate of reason and critical thinking, this post is utterly devoid of either. Which is disappointing, because I know he can do better than that.

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