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The truth about ‘atheist’ atrocities

By George A. Ricker

In most discussions between believers and nonbelievers there comes a time when people start arguing over atrocities. Non theists recite a litany of abuses of groups and individuals perpetrated by various religious sects. Religionists counter with their own list of savageries perpetrated by this or that “atheist” regime, usually the names Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and Mao Tse Tung are invoked. And so it goes.

This sort of dispute always seems singularly unproductive to me. It is a given, recognized by even the most casual student of history, that human beings are capable of great violence, and when any group of humans perceives there is a threat to be defeated or a benefit to be gained by attacking another individual or group of individuals, organized violence is often the option of choice. Such actions are not unique to any particular group.

However, there is a basic flaw in the characterization of atheism as the motivating force behind atrocities committed by political regimes. It should be noted at the outset that Hitler’s Nazi regime was not atheistic. Hitler himself was a Roman Catholic, at least nominally. Now his version of Christianity was probably badly warped and ultimately may have had little or nothing to do with any recognized Christian dogma, but he was, at a minimum, a theist. He did believe in a god and, at various times, expressed the opinion that his actions were in accordance with the divine will. It’s also true that the overwhelming majority of his followers were practicing Christians of one sort and another. So the atrocities committed by Hitler and his regime could not be laid at the door of atheism, even if the argument from atrocities had any validity.

That it does not have any validity ought to be clear to anyone who understands what atheism is and what it is not. Atheism is the absence of god-belief. It is not a political agenda or an economic philosophy. It offers no moral guidance and has no dogma to follow.

There is absolutely nothing in the statements “I have no belief in gods” or “I believe there are no gods” that ought to cause anyone to do any harm to anybody. There is nothing about atheism that suggests or implies an action agenda against anyone who practices a religion of any sort. Although individual atheists may be antagonistic toward religions, there is nothing about atheism that requires such hostility. Atheism is not the opposite of religion. It is the absence or lack of theism (god-belief).

Were terrible atrocities committed by communist regimes? There’s no question about it. Were those regimes overtly atheistic in that they denied the existence of a deity and sought to promote a non theistic view of things? That certainly was the case in, at least, some of them. Doesn’t that mean that atheism was responsible for some, if not all, of the atrocities committed by those regimes? Not at all.

Here’s why.

The regimes in question (i.e. communist regimes like that of the Soviet Union, Communist China, et. al.) were totalitarian and dogmatic in nature. The state was all, and the needs of the state were of paramount importance, regardless of the wishes of individuals. For all their claims of openness and liberation, those societies were invariably oppressive and intolerant of any dissent.

To the extent those regimes were hostile to religion, the hostility came chiefly from the identification of religions and religious organizations as competing sources of influence. In some cases, the antagonism was exacerbated by the recognition (and this was especially true in the Soviet Union) that the church had been aligned with the forces of oppression in the regimes that had been overthrown by the revolutionary movements that led to the creation of the totalitarian states in question.

It is also the case that many, if not most, of the atrocities committed by such regimes against their people had nothing whatever to do with any sort of anti-religious sentiment but were the product of other causes. Agrarian reform produced widespread famine and millions of deaths in both the Soviet Union and Communist China as did the drive to industrialize previously agrarian economies and the tremendous dislocations associated with such efforts. Add to those elements the paranoia of the ruling class and the absolute determination to suppress any voices of dissent that might pose a threat to that ruling class, and the kind of organized violence against any perceived enemy within the societies in question is an entirely predictable outcome.

But it is an outcome that has nothing whatever to do with atheism. That does not mean no atheist might act to perpetrate violence against someone else. Atheists are not exempt from feeling the same passions that may lead to such actions. What it does mean is that the commission of organized mayhem by this or that government cannot be laid at the door of atheism. Even if that government actively promotes atheism, which is itself a problematic notion, there is nothing about atheism that could or should lead to any sort of atrocity.

Some might argue that even though atheism per se might not require or suggest any sort of action against others, atheism might lead to such actions because it does not impose moral restrictions against them. However, this is a weak reed on which to base any sort of attack. Since atheism is not a moral code and suggests no moral guidelines, it cannot be the case that immoral actions can be charged to atheism’s account. Atheists have moral values as well as theists. They just don’t get them from atheism.

So the argument that atheism is somehow responsible for the atrocities committed by various totalitarian regimes in the 20th century fails for several reasons. Atheism offers no rationale for committing such acts. Most of the atrocities in question had nothing to do with questions of religious belief or its lack. Finally, while atheism may not itself offer any sort of moral guidance, that does not mean that atheists lack morals or are immune from moral strictures.

Conflating atheism with communist regimes and then claiming the atrocities committed by those regimes is somehow the fault of atheism is an intellectual shell game that has no real validity. Those who engage in it do so either because they do not understand the nature of atheism or because they are more interested in clouding issues than in promoting genuine understanding.

Finally, it must be emphasized that atheism is not any sort of dogma. Atheism is the absence of belief in a god or gods. It is nothing more than that. As such atheism is the epitome of free thought. Any attempt to impose atheism or to undermine the rights of conscience of other individuals or groups of individuals in the name of atheism goes beyond the scope of atheism itself and must be attributed to other factors.

There is nothing about atheism that can be legitimately used as the basis for attempting to force anything on anyone. To suggest otherwise is to betray ignorance of both the nature of atheism and the history of the 20th century.

© 2007 by George A. Ricker

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