There exists a common charge against atheists and atheism that atheism is instrumental in the genocides of the Western World, in the 20th century. If you let the debate run on long enough, the key actors in this argument are Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, the Kims of North Korea and Mao. The exact tyrants they name depend on the level of understanding of history they choose to present, and how skillfully they think they can argue a particular person is an atheist. You may come up against rhetoric like “are you going to argue ‘tyrant X’ was a good Christian?” as a way of defining someone as an atheist, which is a language game I think is too obvious to argue with: what does one mean by “good Christian”? What does one mean by “good”, in this sense? Is a bad Christian not a Christian?
One strange interlocutor took this argument a step further, arguing that atheism is a necessary precondition for the horrors of the 20th Century in the Western world, alluded to by mentioning the tyrants above. I want to make a series of points against this: not all the people mentioned can confidently be said to be atheists; religious people have led atrocities; and atheism is a poor focal point.
The reason this matters is because the claim being made is that atheism is a “necessary” precondition; if the people at the helm of atrocities are not exclusively atheist, then it cannot be said that atheism is a “necessary” precondition. To a certain extent, the premise being argued defeats itself: the simple fact the parameters are so limited in time and in geography shows a selective sample that is contrived to exclude certain events.
Thanks to xPrae, I was caught up in exactly this debate without knowing it. I’d become exhausted with his contorted logic, disregard of basic philosophy and willful ignorance of facts. I had simply decided to irritate him. Poor form, I know, but letting him express his sense of self-worth was a lot more fun than giving him facts and well-reasoned arguments (that he’d simply call “sophistry” anyway). Meanwhile, xPrae, according to himself, had a university debate moderator scoring our exchange. He won, according to the moderator (according to xPrae), but that’s like having a referee declare a 3rd League High School Basketball team the winners against an NBA team who were taking a walk in a park; one team wasn’t even playing.* Even then, the blog post xPrae wrote about shows signs of a biassed moderator. (Read for yourself.)
Who can we not say was an atheist?
I want to look at two groups of people in the suggested tyrant list: those we cannot confidently say are atheists, and those we can confidently say are religious. These groups work to cast doubt on and entirely destroy the premise offered, respectively. Hitler and Pol Pot are both difficult to claim as atheists. The Kims are religious.
Hitler made numerous recorded public and private declarations of faith. The Nazi movement was perpetrated on Hitler’s proclamations of Christian faith. One can blindly speculate that Hitler’s actions exclude him from being a Christian, but his actions did not convince the Catholic Church or a variety of other Christian leaders that Hitler wasn’t Christian. Not only did Hitler say he was Christian, but he also managed to convince a lot of people within Christianity that he was Christian. Not just the leaders and authorities within different Churches, but also the German people. There is nothing about Hitler’s actions that convinced people at the time he was not a Christian. The historical revisionism needed to make that claim now should be staring people in the face.
The entire argument that Hitler was not a Christian comes from some of the people closest to Hitler claiming that his ideas and attitudes did not conform to their own definition or standard of Christianity. But, that is a person’s own definition of Christianity, one that the Church clearly did not recognise at the time. Is Goebbels’s definition of Christianity really the authority on this? Is Goebbels’ opinion robust enough to exclude Hitler not just from Christianity, but deism in the broader sense? Even if you trust Goebbels’ standard of measuring Christianity by action and not on belief, and Goebbels’ conclusion that Hitler didn’t meet Goebbels’ standard of Christianity, that does nothing to exclude Hitler from broader theism. But there is a lot of philosophical work and historical revisionism required to even get to that stage.
Pol Pot was a raised a Buddhist and acted like a Buddhist right up to the point he became a dictator. There was no obvious denouncement or even gradual falling out of Buddhism; no transition. It’s difficult to say he was a Buddhist at one point but stopped being a Buddhist at any point before he was a tyrant. That said, he did persecute Buddhists first. I find this far too mixed a picture to be able to say confidently that he was an atheist.
The Kims aren’t atheists. They are Gods of a religion. A dead Kim is still the leader of North Korea, because the religion (which, I don’t think has a name) doesn’t accept that he died. That’s not atheism. I don’t think that point can be overstated: atheism is not the elevation of one’s self to the position of a God or to assume God’s authority. If that’s the approach one takes to indict atheism of the atrocities, then one is mistaken.
xPrae, for example, argues that committing an atrocity is “seeking to be God”, and that this makes one an atheist. Every step in that reasoning is absurd: some atrocities are the result of defensible interpretation of passages of scripture, and Christianity has a loophole written into it that means no deed is unforgivable. It’s not seeking to be God if one plans to make amends afterwards, that’s simply playing the game. And, for the record, Humanism doesn’t have a loophole like that in it. Seeking to bea god doesn’t even mean you don’t believe in another God; there’s nothing like a bit of healthy competition. Didn’t the Devil seek to be God, knowing full well there was a God?
But that still leaves Stalin and Mao as likely atheists. I could be done here, as once I have demonstrated that the call of exclusivity of atheism in these atrocities cannot be reasonably exclaimed, I have completely done away with the idea that atheism is a “necessary” component.
Religious people have led atrocities
The fact that not everyone on the list can be said to be atheists is not the only way to demonstrate that atheism has no exclusive position at the helm of the atrocities. In fact, they could all be atheists and that still wouldn’t support the premise of atheism being necessary. The other way is to point out that people we can confidently say are religious have led atrocities. The Solomon empire, the Inquisition, Witch Hunts, Jorge Rafael Videla, and The Lord’s Liberation army are all pretty well-known examples.
But we also live in a world where Jihadists are committing genocide, Sunnis and Shi’ites are committing genocide against each other, Christians are committing murder against huge numbers of Muslims in the Central African Republic, Buddhists are exterminating Muslims in Myanmar. I’ve written before about the ways in which religion can inspire violence: it’s role in defining a tribe as well as it’s actual commands to violence. Religions are difficult to interpret, and Abrahamic religions are even more difficult still to interpret peacefully. When someone says a religious murderer or tyrant simply got their religion wrong, they are making the profoundly arrogant assumption they are getting the religion right; different to how people throughout history and modernity have interpreted it, they know what’s right. (Are they claiming themselves a God? Who knows?)
xPrae has a response to this: that people who commit atrocities are usurping the authority of God and are therefore atheists. If that’s the language game you want to play, then xPrae’s conclusion is incontrovertible. But, I think the sophistry xPrae is employing unravels as soon as you choose to think about it. Being a tyrant doesn’t mean usurping God’s authority, especially when God commands such things (Sharia law, the Canaanites’ extermination); that’s a surrender of moral autonomy to God, explicitly. But, even if one does usurp the authority of God, that’s not atheism; they might plan to make amends near the end (the Christian loophole) or be assuming a new covenant with God; they could deny God’s authority in this life but accept it in the next. The only way to follow xPrae’s argument is to change the definition of all the keywords. (Ironically, if one tries to hold him to the real definition of the keywords, then that person is the sophist, not xPrae.)
Religion is very much still a prominent factor in many wars and atrocities across the globe. And that’s not to mention that the religiosity (Christianity) of the Nazis was a necessary precondition for the Holocaust. They needed to be Christian to be convinced they could justify what they were doing and of Hitler’s speeches (even if all they were was rhetoric). For all the debate to be had about Hitler, the actual foot soldiers were Christian.
These examples may fail to meet the criteria of the premise: Western. But I’d argue that is an entirely contrived parameter, written in for the implicit purpose of excluding these examples. Not only are the Kims, Mao and Pol Pot also not “Western” (leaving only Stalin―and only arguably―in the argument, which isn’t much of an argument at all, is it?) but such a limit undermines the whole idea of atheism being a “necessary precondition”. If atheism were necessary, it would not be so context-specific as to exclude nearly all the atrocities that are actually happening.
So, not only are all the “atheists” not atheists, but they are also not the only people that commit atrocities.
Why try to focus on atheism at all?
There is a clear agenda present in trying to make atheism the focus of modern atrocities. It involves a contorted logic to exclude religious tyrants, and to try to make atheists out of people who are not atheists, and it serves a goal (which might explain why it’s so important to some people). But atheism is precisely not the issue. The issue is what people actually believed, and in every case, what the person at the helm believed, and convinced others of, was basically religious.
Take Stalin, the most likely person in our list to have been both atheist and Western (although, it’s a bit of a stretch on being Western). He was anti-theistic. You may think that being an atheist is self-evident, if we accept he’s an anti-theist. I disagree. I do not have to withhold belief or disbelieve in the government of North Korea to dislike it. Equally, Stalin does not have to withhold belief or disbelieve in God to be anti-theistic. Stalin probably was an atheist, but that’s not the necessary step. And, if you refuse to focus on the necessary step, you may as well pick some other arbitrary feature; after all, all the named tyrants breathed. Is breathing a relevant necessary precondition? Why not make efforts to focus on what is relevant?
The relevant claim that the tyrants believed and convinced others of was this: there is a better world available at the other side of this action, therefore, this action cannot be thought of as bad. It was an unwavering belief in a utopia existing at the other side of an atrocity. It is this dogmatic certainty and willingness to follow through that is the concern, and that which I am characterising as religious.
A better Cambodia exists, for the survivors, and it is just on the other side of eradicating intellectuals and those who refuse to farm; a better race exists, and can be realised and purified, and it will inherit a utopia once there are no Jews, black people or disabled people in Germany; the world is a purer and more faithful place without heretics, and so there’s just one little thing we need to do to create a utopia; 72 virgins and bliss await the martyr…
The religious claims of certainty in a utopia do not exclude more traditionally religious beliefs; if anything, they foster each other. Only theists can claim to have such special access to knowledge. There is nothing about Hitler’s belief in a superior race that excludes him from being a Christian; if anything, the idea that God has a chosen people is supported by the Bible.
Short of immediate self-protection, we should be immediately sceptical of anyone who says they are willing to kill for a greater good. That person is not selling atheism, that person is selling religion.
*If you think that’s simply the ‘I could have won but I wasn’t trying’ dodge, then you’ve missed the point. That is only a dodge if you then never offer to demonstrate what you can do when you try.