Atheism is responsible for the deaths of 100 million people in the 20th Century.
Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot killed millions of people in the name of atheism.
Atheism is the cause of the most repressive, murderous regimes in history.
OK, everybody, raise your hands if you had one of the above quotes thrown at you by theists when debating the existence of god, or the relative merits of religion. One, two, three… one hundred twenty two…oh, no use counting. It looks like everyone has at least one hand raised, some have both up. OK, put them down.
I personally found myself dealing with this issue at least twice during the past week on different blogs. Most times it’s thrown at me as a response to an allegation that Christianity has been responsible for such horrors as the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition (the latter, a subject near and dear to my heart). Despite how ludicrous those statements are, and how unsupportable they are by evidence and history, theists continue to trot them out time after time. Sometimes I feel like I’m in the middle of a schoolyard spat: “Your mom’s ugly! Oh yea, well, your mom’s uglier!“. It’s as if they think that the only way to respond to the history of Christianity is by inventing a false history for atheism. It boils down to just another tu quoque fallacious argument, in an effort to avoid the real issues.
As most people (other that Christian apologists) know and understand, atheism is simply a lack of belief in the supernatural or the divine. It is not an affirmative statement of belief, it is a dis-affirmation of a belief in god(s). It is also not something people can join, like religion, nor is it a movement, though it does have social and cultural connotations when espoused in conjunction with other ideologies.
I can join Christianity by joining a particular Christian church, and by professing belief in the tenets of that church. There is, by contrast, no “church” of atheism for me to join. Even if there was, there are no beliefs that an atheist can profess, as tenets of this non-existent church. Atheists can belong to other organizations or ideologies (such as humanism) which may or may not have other beliefs, but generally one doesn’t join atheism. One simply makes a decision that he or she doesn’t believe in the supernatural.
Additionally, beliefs, being both personal and involuntary, are not something an atheist has much control over. Sure, outward signs of belief may be acted out by people who fear that not doing so will lead to harm, but their internal, actual beliefs are not changed – just masked. Atheism, like religious belief, cannot be imposed by others. A lack of belief in god usually is arrived at after careful scrutiny and balancing of the reasons pro and con, and a rejection of the pro. One really can’t force one’s beliefs on oneself, or talk oneself into believing. You either do or you don’t.
So when theists bring up famous atheists like Stalin, or Mao or Pol Pot, and then try to link their personal lack of beliefs in gods to the atrocities that are also attributed to them, they are just plain wrong. Such a link is disingenuous, and frankly assumes a level of ignorance on the listener that is both insulting and condescending.
Atheism is not a movement. No government or country effectuates policy in the name of atheism. Atheism is not even a a proper “ism”. It has no guidelines, rules, tenets, or practices. It has no rituals, dogma, holy books or scripture. It cannot replace religion, because it is merely the vacuum created when religion disappears from one’s personal beliefs.
Moreover, people don’t kill because of a lack of belief in something. If they kill at all, they do it because of a positive belief in something. If we accept the proposition that people kill because of their lack of beliefs, then by extension, there is more evidence to blame all murders in the entire world (except those done by children under the age of, say, 10) on the failure to believe in Santa Claus, than on any other reason, because that is something all murderers have in common. Obviously, their lack of belief in Santa drove them to kill, right?. Or, instead of blaming the “troubles” in Ireland on Catholic/Protestant antagonism, we should blame them on the Irish lack of belief in leprechauns. That sounds pretty silly, doesn’t it? The reason for this is that there is a failure of connection, or a nexus, between atheism (or a-santaclausism or a-leprechaunism) and acts of brutality.
Yet, Stalin was an atheist. He was very clear about that. So should his subsequent actions as the dictator of Soviet Russia be pinned exclusively to his atheism? The answer is no. Why? Because there is no evidence for it, and if you are an atheist, evidence is important to belief, unlike the Christian belief system.
Why was he an atheist, and to what use did he put his personal atheism? He was a communist first, a devotee of Marxim, who was raised as a Christian, and even studied in the seminary to be a priest. He realized how important, and how intertwined, religion was in the lives of the Russian people. He also knew that for the communist state to succeed, it could have no competition for the hearts and minds of the people from any other source. In Stalin’s communism, the state was everything. Religion had to go. Why? Not because he didn’t personally believe in god, but because god (or more correctly, god’s institution here on earth) interfered with his ability to control Russia. So the state became officially atheistic.
The underpinnings of atheism are freethought. That’s FREE THOUGHT. Thought that is free. Free thinkers are able to make up their owns minds about their beliefs; beliefs are not imposed by the state on free thinkers. Atheism, as we know it and advocate it on blogs such as this one, is anathema to communism, Stalinism, Bolshevism, Polpotism (OK, I made that word up) or any other ‘ism” that relies on state centered dogma imposed from above. Atheism in Stalin’s Russia, then, was a mere tool used by Stalin, for the greater good of the state, imposed on the structure of society. It’s effect was to strip away the power of the church to oppose his power. It was not a mere lack of belief in gods. Stalin could care less about the individual beliefs of the peasant, his focus was on destroying organized religion. Religion still flourished unofficially in Stalinist Russia, he actually reopened the churches during WWII in order to motivate the people to fight, and religion continues to this day.
No one died because they refused to embrace atheism. Many died because they were deemed enemies of the state. Religious leaders may have been among the executed, but not because they refused to become atheists, but because they were viewed as holdovers of the old order that would try to oppose the state.
However, nowhere near the number of people claimed by theists actually died in Stalinist Russia. Historians have pored over the records once they were thrown open after the fall of the USSR, hoping to find evidence of mass executions. So far, the evidence points to about 3,000,000 total deaths by reason of execution, privation and resettlement. (Of those only about 7-800,000 were by execution.) Another 6-8 million died during the Famine in the Ukraine, but historians are unable to say whether Stalin caused the famine intentionally, or whether it was just an ill-conceived agrarian policy gone bad. In any event, it’s very hard to justify the claim that a famine was used “in the name of atheism” to kill people.
The entire allegation is a red herring. It is created by theists to divert your attention from the clearly historical basis of Christian horror. If you are debating theists and it’s raised as some sort of defense, point out that the issue being debated is not some trumped up historical claim about atheism, but the validity of the real historical religion known as Christianity. Is it true? Is it valid? Is it good?
The ultimate question is, are atheists correct? Does god exist?
(My personal answer is, if he does, he would have stopped Stalin from killing all those alleged victims of atheism. The horrors of Stalin are very good evidence for the non-existence of god. I don’t understand why theists keep pointing us to it.)
And if your theist still insists on his or her belief that Stalin killed 100 million people in the name of atheism, or even just three million, simply shrug your shoulders and understand where Dawkins got the third word in the title of his book, “The God Delusion“.