bookmark_borderMass Murder and Atheism

(Redated post originally published on 16 August 2012)
I’ve been thinking about the relationship between religion and morality again. I recently read yet another editorial that blames atheism for the mass slaughters committed by Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung, and so forth.
They have a point. While it is entirely debatable whether Hitler was an atheist—I tend to think the evidence indicates that Hitler believed in some sort of non-Christian god—I’m not aware of a good reason for doubting that the other individuals were, in fact, atheists. Even if we exclude Hitler, therefore, we are still left with a list of atheistic dictators who collectively murdered tens of millions of people. Theists are justified in mentioning that fact in response to atheists who have attacked religion because of atrocities committed by theists. Let us not, therefore, address concerns about the behavior of atheistic regimes too dismissively. These were men who believed that they answered to literally no one and who slaughtered millions of innocent people. The outrage (and fear) that good willed people feel at the very thought of such individuals is a natural human emotion. It therefore deserves to be taken seriously.
So as an atheist myself, what, then, do I have to say about these atrocities? To be frank, I can think of a lot of easier questions to tackle. My response is not going to even come close to the response it ought to be given the sheer magnitude of those atrocities, but it is the best I can manage to write.
Every atheist I have ever met condemns those atrocities as moral abominations. Indeed, I think if you asked the average atheist if they condemned the behavior, the answer would be not only “Yes” but “Yes, of course!” Because this answer would seem so obvious to atheists, I think atheists tend to forget to actually make their feelings on the matter explicitly known. Yet to merely say that the actions of those dictators were wrong seems like a massive understatement. I think I can speak of behalf of all good-willed atheists when I say that I (we) feel terrible about what those atheistic dictators did. When I think about the scale of the tragedies inflicted by these monsters, my knee-jerk reaction is to feel angry. I wish they received the punishment they deserved.
While I obviously cannot undo the past or prevent atrocities by future totalitarian regimes, one thing that I can do is to promote freethought. This is relevant, since freethought and totalitarianism are at odds with one another. (By definition, freethinkers are committed to forming opinions independently of tradition or emotion.) Indeed, it is striking just how much these dictators had to suppress independent thought in order to maintain their totalitarian control.
Everything I have written above was intended to address the perfectly understandable emotions that many people experience when they consider the actions of atheistic regimes. But what about their philosophical significance? Does the behavior of 20th-century atheistic regimes somehow refute atheism? Unless there is good reason to link their behavior with their atheism, the answer would have to be “no.” To paraphrase a point made Julian Baggini, “The fact that 20th century totalitarian regimes were atheistic is no more reason to think that atheism is evil than the fact that Hitler was a vegetarian is a good reason to suppose that all vegetarians are Nazis.”
In fact, contrary to what some critics of atheism assert, there is good reason to believe that mass murder is not the consequence of atheism. First, atheism, as opposed to materialism, does not entail an ontological thesis about the nonexistence of moral facts. (In other words, the existence of moral facts is logically compatible with the nonexistence of God.) Second, atheism does not entail the denial of any normative ethical theory except for those theories, such as various versions of the divine command theory, that explicitly appeal to God. (In other words, atheism is logically compatible with ethical theories that make mass murder wrong.) Third, atheism was never cited by atheistic regimes as the justification for their actions. Fourth, again paraphrasing Baggini, “The mere existence of millions of atheists in Western democracies who have no truck with totalitarian regimes shows that there is no essential link between atheism and condoning mass murder.”
This leads to my final point. For purposes of this essay, we can divide atheists into two groups: dogmatic and freethinking. Freethinking atheists are atheists who arrive at the conclusion that atheism is true, independently of authority and dogma; dogmatic atheists are atheists who don’t. Atheistic dictators who rely upon the authority (and force) of the government, rather than persuasion, to enforce certain points of view are not freethinkers, but dogmatists. By contrast, freethinking atheists have not committed atrocities. And all of the major atheistic organizations in the English-speaking world are committed to freethought.
Does the behavior of 20th century atheistic dictators show that atheists can be evil? Clearly, the answer is yes. Is citing that behavior a relevant response to atheists who claim that religion is responsible for historical atrocities? Again, I would say yes. Does their behavior show that mass murder is a logical consequence of atheism, much less freethinking atheism? No, it does not even come close to that.

bookmark_borderNot this Again!

John Mark Reynolds, Provost of Houston Baptist University, has posted an essay reasserting the old canard that atheism is the cause of mass murder. Reynolds commits all the usual fallacies of those who make this claim. For instance, though he notes that correlation is not the same thing as cause, here is what he says in his opening paragraph:

Atheistic regimes killed millions in the last century. Nobody denies this fact, though some deny atheism had much to do with the murder…Yet there is decent reason to connect the atheism with the killing. Atheism as the dominant form of thought in a state correlates very neatly with mass murder.

The argument appears to be this: “Every officially atheistic regime was murderous. Therefore, atheism is a likely cause of the murderousness of those regimes.” Despite the later cautious qualification, this argument is placed front-and-center in the opening paragraph and is repeated several times in the essay. It is a worthless argument precisely because correlation is not causation. At one time, without exception, every Christian nation routinely practiced hideous forms of torture. Would it have been right to conclude that Christianity causes torture? Now, atheism might cause murder—and Christianity might cause torture. However, without further evidence establishing a cause and not merely a correlation, such arguments prove nothing. Does Reynolds provide such evidence?
Well, he recognizes that it is hard to hang tragic consequences on atheism per se, since atheism, by itself, is not an ideology or worldview, but simply the denial of the existence of a God or gods. Atheists have been political conservatives, liberals, radicals, and libertarians. Philosophical atheists have been existentialists, logical positivists, feminists, Marxists, pragmatists, and idealists. Atheism per se says little or nothing about how we are to conduct our lives or govern a society. Further, Reynolds admits that there are many friendly atheists who would never harbor a persecuting thought. So, he singles out not just atheism, but active antitheism as the culprit. The antitheists, says Reynolds, are the ones who, “…actively dislike and work against religion. These are the atheists that have proven dangerous in power and worrisome in civil society.” So, if your next-door neighbor is a friendly atheist, there is no need to worry that he will murder you in your sleep. However, if he is a truculent antitheist, bar your door!
There has never been a society that was just antitheist any more than there has been a society that was just theist and not any particular sort. Such antitheism has always been a corollary of an overarching ideology such as Marxism/Leninism (ML). ML was not just antitheism; it was an entire counter-religion, indeed, a darker reflection of Christianity itself. Bertrand Russell pointed out the parallels between Marxism and Christianity. ML had holy prophets, Marx and Engels. It had a savior, Lenin. It had inerrant holy scriptures, the writings of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. It had a College of Cardinals, the Politburo, and a pope, the Soviet leader. The Catholic Church had the Holy Inquisition to root out heresy; the Soviet Union had the NKVD. Like Christianity, ML had an eschatology. For Christianity it is the Second Coming of Christ; for communism it is the classless society.
Both Christianity and ML claim to possess the ultimate and final capital-T Truth—Truth that can be known with such certainty that unbelief is morally and intellectually reprehensible. Any religion, theistic or antitheistic, that makes such claims will incline towards intolerance and persecution. Further, like Christianity, ML was a totalizing, all-encompassing system that demanded the complete devotion of its followers and the exclusion of all other faiths. A true communist, like a true Christian, was supposed to be faithful in all things; even your deepest thoughts and feelings are to be disciplined so that they are brought into line with orthodoxy. Freedom of thought and conscience were vigorously suppressed in both systems. Among the many similarities between the Kremlin and the Vatican was the fact that each kept lists of prohibited books. “Thoughtcrime” was odious both to Torquemada and to Stalin.
Still, Reynolds insists that it was specifically the element of antitheism that imparted the particular murderousness to those communist regimes. What argument does he give? Reynolds says that the totalitarians first became atheists and later communists:

First, the atheists of Russia, China, North Korea, Cambodia, [and] Albania came to their atheism and then picked a social and economic system compatible with their general worldview. Individuals decided traditional religion was bunk and harmful and became atheists. They sought a worldview that would fit their newfound freedom.

There are several remarkable things about this passage. First, it is presented without any semblance of evidence or documentation. It makes a sweeping claim based, apparently, on absolutely nothing. Did Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, Kim Il-Sung, Pol Pot, and Enver Hoxha all, as a matter of biographical fact, first become zealous antitheists and then discover communism as the way of satisfying their antitheistic urges? Reynolds must have done a tremendous amount of scholarly digging to establish this surprising and little-known historical fact. Too bad he did not indicate some of his sources.
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Reynolds is right and that all of the above totalitarians were vehement antitheists before they became communists. Does this show that their antitheism made them murderers? What would show that? Well, Reynolds says:

…atheism was used as a reason for persecution in all of these nations. When people tell you that you are being persecuted because you are religious, it creates a powerful presumption that religion is the reason you are being persecuted.

Once again, Reynolds’ claim must be based upon massive—but, alas, undocumented—scholarship that reveals facts unknown to other historians. Was the extirpation of religion the explicit justification given for Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward? What about the Ukrainian famine in the 1930’s or the Great Terror and purges of Stalin? Did Pravda announce that these were carried out in punishment of the religious convictions of the victims? Did antitheism motivate the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the subsequent partition of Poland? Were the Polish officers massacred in the Katyn Forest because of their Catholicism? Was antitheism the banner that flew over the killing fields of Cambodia? In actuality, there is no historical basis for saying that opposition to religion was the prime justification for the really infamous and heinous crimes and atrocities of communism, the ones that killed millions. If Reynolds is offering a revisionist history of those incidents he needs to provide substantial—or at least some—relevant evidence.
Under Stalin could you be sent to the Gulag for religious reasons? Sure. You could be sent to the Gulag for just about any reason. I once read about a worker on a collective farm who joked that the cows looked stupid. According to the story, he was denounced and given a ten-year sentence for demeaning Soviet agriculture. Any activity, statement, or belief judged anti-Soviet, whether religious or not, could get you shipped to the arctic to starve in a labor camp. People were certainly persecuted for their religious convictions. Likewise, geneticists who opposed Party-approved crackpot Trofim Lysenko were persecuted for their scientific beliefs. Composer Dmitri Shostakovich was threatened when his music did not meet Soviet standards. Handing out Bibles in Red Square would have gotten you in trouble, but so would distributing copies of The Wealth of Nations.
It appears, then, that Reynolds has given no historical evidence for singling out atheism, or even antitheism, as the only or even one of the main causes of the murderousness of communist regimes. Actually, the reason he seems to put so little effort into presenting credible historical evidence is that he thinks he knows a priori that antitheism is dangerous. What makes antitheism so dangerous is that, unlike Christianity, it creates its own values to serve its own purposes:

Christians are told to ‘love their enemies.’ Have they always done this? No. They have often failed, but their failure hits against an essential part of their belief system. Christians that kill or torture are denying part of Christianity. An antitheist creates his own values, so he can decide that theism is a serious enough mental illness to put theists into ‘remediation’ in mental hospitals. How many Christians were killed in psychiatric wards in atheistic states? Nobody is sure of the number, but it is in the thousands.

But this is just supporting one ancient canard with another, the old slander that atheists are free to create any values they find convenient and so face no genuine moral constraint. As Dostoevsky put it “If there is no God, then everything is allowed.” Actually, Dostoevsky had it exactly backwards. God is the greatest excuse for doing bad things that anyone has ever devised. If you want to hate some people, you can hate with a joyously clear conscience if you are sure that God hates them too. Over the ages Christians have been very adept at finding reasons for saying that God hates the same people they hate—heretics, infidels, gay people, etc. Reynolds does not approve; he says that “Christians that kill or torture are denying part of Christianity.” This is a laudable sentiment, but many of the most devout Christians would strongly disagree. Indeed, many would condemn Reynolds as a mushy sentimentalist and insist that the refusal to kill or torture in the name of Christ is profoundly anti-Christian. St. Augustine, for instance, was very clear that physical coercion should be used to compel heretics to return to the fold. Stalin would certainly have agreed with Augustine on this point.
At bottom, all efforts to tar atheism with the brush of communism are exercises in guilt by association: Communists were atheists. Communists were bad. Therefore, atheism is bad. A precisely analogous train of thought seems to occur to the deep thinkers of Al Qaida and ISIS: Crusaders were Christians. Crusaders were bad. Therefore, Christianity is bad. Biased thinking should be rejected whether it issues from a fanatical imam or from the distinguished provost of a university.