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Was atheism the cause of 20th century atrocities?
Originally posted by Robert at his blog Making My Way. Reposted with permission.


It is a frequent rejoinder and polemic hurled about by religious apologists. Yes, certain murderous excesses like crusades, inquisitions, and witch hunts may have been committed by the religious, but they pale in comparison to those done in the cause of atheism. Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot-strident atheists all whose famines, wars, genocides, and purges created magnitudes more dead. Consider, for example, these words from militant Christian cheerleader, Dinesh D’Souza:

"These figures are tragic, and of course population levels were much lower at the time. But even so, they are minuscule compared with the death tolls produced by the atheist despotisms of the 20th century. In the name of creating their version of a religion-free utopia, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong produced the kind of mass slaughter that no Inquisitor could possibly match. Collectively these atheist tyrants murdered more than 100 million people."

As a student of Soviet history and communist ideology (MA in Russian Studies, Georgetown University), I was surprised to encounter such accusations when I first heard them. Never in my studies had I come across this view, neither in the scholarly literature nor in the classroom. Some might dismiss this as simply evidence of the university’s deeply liberal and secular bias, yet scholars of a conservative bent, such as Hannah Arendt and Richard Pipes (with whom I tended to agree), were a core part of my curriculum. My graduate studies were also completed at a university founded and run by Jesuits, not exactly proponents of skepticism.

It is not difficult to see why today’s religious apologists are so eager to impugn atheism in this way. Skepticism and secularism, if not outright rejection of religion, are growing in increasing favor among nations and regions where age-old religious traditions have kept them employed. Mass terror attacks, suicide bombings, and intractable religious strife have coalesced to focus hard attention, once again, on the seamier side of faith. Religious belief is thus on the defensive. Unable to wholly reject the skeptics’ barbs, its apologists consequently respond with this moral equivalency argument. Bad things have been done in religion’s name, they acknowledge, but worse have been done by those who have none. Apparently, religion is to be preferred because it has produced fewer horrors than the alternative.

Behind all the noise generated by religion’s apologists, is there perhaps a grain of truth? If there is, I have not uncovered it. In fact, I know of no reputable historian of the communist experience who believes atheism plays any meaningful role, much less the actual basis. Arendt’s Totalitarianism, which stands as “the definitive account of the philosophical origins of the totalitarian mind,” never once mentions atheism. I have frequently challenged believers to produce a single professional historian who agrees with their thesis, but not one has been able. Could the historical revisionism be another example of their long-practiced art of pious fraud?

What lies behind the seductive appeal of their thesis is the notion - conceit, really - that one cannot be moral without belief in some Supreme Moral Lawgiver. As a Christian apologist explains,

No matter how sincerely I believe I am right about some moral decision, the true test is in the origin of that belief. And God is the only universal and absolute origin to all morality… If we don’t believe we are created by God, but simply highly evolved animals, and if we believe we have accountability only to society, then there is no end to the depths of depravity that we can go in our search to justify our actions. Corrosion of morals begins in microscopic proportions, but if not checked by a standard beyond ourselves, it will continue until the corrosion wipes away the very foundation of our lives, and we find ourselves sinking in a sea of relativity.

Unfortunately, this claim simply has not been borne out in practice, and is soundly refuted in the skeptical literature. The vast number of non-believers who lead ethical lives - as well as the notable cases of high-profile believers who don’t - demonstrates that god-belief makes one no more or less moral. A growing body of scientific evidence posits an explanation why: morality likely has a biological basis. Many theists, such as the renowned Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, counter that the basis is of divine origin, a “natural law” written upon man’s heart by God (Romans 2:14-15). Perhaps, but in claiming such a law, religion’s apologists have unwittingly undermined their argument that atheism inevitably leads to “the depths of depravity.” Did atheists somehow figure out a way to overrule an act of God?

With that said, I now debunk the thesis that atheism lies at the bottom of the previous century’s brutal regimes. I start with Hitler’s Nazism, for which there is virtually no basis at all.

Sentinal on 07/05/2009 10:05

there will always be evil people in every century no matter what, wheather they be religious or non religious. it is a great comeback for christians. it is like nah nah nah nah nah for them. but at the end of the day it evil still does not serve as proof of god or the devil for that matter. according to the christian bible, god himself killed millions, entire civilizations even. their delusion makes them unable to see this.

Doubting Thomas on 07/28/2009 11:11

Hitler was not an atheist. No matter how loudly or how often Christians yell this, it doesn't make it true. He was Catholic. In fact, pictures exist of him exiting a church. Furthermore, the reason he killed so many people including Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, and yes, atheists, was because he was interested in racial purity, not because of their religion. Stalin, while perhaps technically an atheist, killed anyone he thought was a threat to his power, not because they practiced religion. In fact, the Russian Orthodox Church lasted up through all the years of the cold war, even though it was heavily penetrated by the KGB.

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