[An updated version of this article can be found here.]
For Hitchens and co, religion does little good and secularism hardly any evil. Never mind that tyrants devoid of religion such as Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Mao and Pol Pot perpetrated the worst atrocities in history. As H. Allen Orr, professor of biology at the University of Rochester, observed, the 20th century was an experiment in secularism that produced secular evil, responsible for the unprecedented murder of more than 100 million. (Abramovich, 2009)
Yes, here it is again, the ubiquitous claim that atheism = Stalin/Pol Pot = moral atrocities. This is a complex one, so hang around. It is commonly claimed by Christians, and I had a debate about this on the Unbelievable forum on facebook recently with many who did, that secular atheism was responsible for the atrocities of the twentieth century perpetrated by the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot (Mao Zedong is often thrown in for good measure). This raises several questions:
- Were these people atheists?
- If so, was their atheism causally instrumental in these people carrying out such atrocities?
- Are these atrocities different in any particular and important way to those carried out by religious predecessors?
I am going to look at all of these points and show that atheism is not the cause of such atrocities. It might be worth considering that, at the time of writing here in the UK, the Prime Minister is atheist, the Deputy is atheist and the shadow leader is most certainly an atheist and we have not yet committed any huge atrocities under their command! That said, the last religious leader we had (Tony Blair) went, at the behest of his US (Christian) counterpart, George W. Bush, on a Crusade into the Middle East in what many call an illegal war. Go figure.
Looking first at question number 1), were these people atheists? The Hitler question has been answered by many people more knowledgeable on the subject than me. Suffice it to say, in simple terms, no, he wasn’t. Yes, there was Gott mit uns on army belts, and Hitler cozied up to religious institutions, probably more for his own political ends. Importantly, atheists were persecuted. As wiki states:
In Germany during the Nazi era, a 1933 decree stated that “No National Socialist may suffer detriment… on the ground that he does not make any religious profession at all”. However, the regime strongly opposed “godless communism”, and most of Germany’s atheist and largely left-wing freethought organizations were banned the same year; some right-wing groups were tolerated by the Nazis until the mid-1930s. During negotiations leading to the Nazi-Vatican Concordat of April 26, 1933 Hitler stated that “Secular schools can never be tolerated” because of their irreligious tendencies.
In one speech he stated:
“We were convinced that the people need and require this faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.”
Hitler (a baptised Catholic who was never ex-communicated) flirted with assorted deistic paganistic ideas of Christianity and religion, all of which basically amounts to not being an atheist in any recognisable way.
In a speech in 1922, he stated:
“My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was his fight against the Jewish poison. Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed his blood upon the Cross. As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice. …And if there is anything which could demonstrate that we are acting rightly, it is the distress that daily grows. For as a Christian I have also a duty to my own people. And when I look on my people I see them work and work and toil and labor, and at the end of the week they have only for their wages wretchedness and misery. When I go out in the morning and see these men standing in their queues and look into their pinched faces, then I believe I would be no Christian, but a very devil, if I felt no pity for them, if I did not, as did our Lord two thousand years ago, turn against those by whom today this poor people are plundered and exploited.”
Now, we can argue about context and whatnot, but what is clear is that Hitler was far from being clearly an atheist who committed atrocities in the name of atheism, or because he was an atheist. Furthermore, Hitler’s views appeared to change over his lifetime and years in power, so saying Hitler was X is to be overly simplistic. As Austin Cline writes in showing that the Nazi party itself was certainly not atheistic:
The NSDAP Party Program stated: “We demand freedom for all religious confessions in the state, insofar as they do not endanger its existence or conflict with the customs and moral sentiments of the Germanic race. The party as such represents the standpoint of a positive Christianity, without owing itself to a particular confession….”
Positive Christianity adhered to basic orthodox doctrines and asserted that Christianity must make a practical, positive difference in people’s lives. It’s difficult to maintain that Nazi ideology was atheistic when it explicitly endorsed and promoted Christianity in the party platform.
So despite what Hitler’s personal views were, Nazi Germany was never an atheistic nation, and it takes more than one man to enact all of those atrocities.
With regard to the Holocaust, whose causal roots re undoubtedly complex, one can be sure that Christian anti-Semitism played a part, as it had done throughout Europe for centuries in various Semitic discriminations. The discrimination against Jews and homosexuals has long been the pastime of conservative Christians rather than of left-leaning atheists – you only have to look at the notions espoused by Martin Luther in the time of the Reformation – see Von den Juden und iren Lugen (On the Jews and Their Lies).
As one commentator opines:
Hitler’s biographer John Toland explains Catholicism’s influence on the Holocaust. He says of Hitler: “Still a member in good standing of the Church of Rome despite detestation of its hierarchy, he carried within him its teaching that the Jew was the killer of god. The extermination, therefore, could be done without a twinge of conscience since he was merely acting as the avenging hand of god. . ..”
Even after World War II, Catholic assistance to the Nazis continued. The Vatican aided the escape of more Nazis than any other governmental or private entity. Christopher Hitchens adds: “It was the Vatican itself, with its ability to provide passports, documents, money, and contacts, which organized the escape network and also the necessary shelter and succor at the other end.”
So I think we can safely put to bed this idea that the Nazis were, in any clear and causal manner, atheists; and we can conclude that Christians did not help matters in any institutional way.
Let us now look to whether Stalin and Pol Pot were atheists.
Russell Blackford, fellow SINner, sets out in his excellent 50 Great Myths About Atheism:
By contrast to all this, the Soviet Union was undeniably an atheist state, and the same applies to Maoist China and to Pol Pot’s fanatical Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the 1970s. That does not, however, show that the atrocities committed by these totalitarian dictatorships were the result of atheist beliefs, carried out in the name of atheism, or caused primarily by the atheistic aspects of the relevant forms of communism. In all of these cases, the situation was more complex – as, to be fair, also applies to some of the persecutions and atrocities in which religious movements, organizations, and leaders have been deeply implicated over the centuries.
It is pretty clear that the two leaders were atheists. But Hitler and Stalin had moustaches. It does not follow that moustaches were an important causal factor in the atrocities committed by them or under their tenure. Commonality is not causation. As wiki states of Stalin:
Raised in the Georgian Orthodox faith, Stalin became an atheist. He followed the position that religion was an opiate that needed to be removed in order to construct the ideal communist society. His government promoted atheism through special atheistic education in schools, anti-religious propaganda, the antireligious work of public institutions (Society of the Godless), discriminatory laws, and a terror campaign against religious believers.
As for Pol Pot, things are a little less obvious. One oft-cited quote by Christians appears to be that Prince Norodom Sihanouk once said of Pol Pot:
“Pol Pot does not believe in God but he thinks that heaven, destiny, wants him to guide Cambodia in the way he thinks it the best for Cambodia, that is to say, the worst. Pol Pot is mad, you know, like Hitler.”
But I cannot find the source of this quote. Either way, it shows some pretty incongruous views, and shows that he seemed to have been mad qua irrational, and believed in forces outside of himself such as destiny and heaven. In A. Gregor’s Totalitarianism and Political Religion: An Intellectual History (p. 246), the author states of Pol Pot (Sar):
Ample evidence survives that throughout his life, Sar harbored hate, in equal measure, of both Colonialists and his Vietnamese neighbors, both of whom he forever saw as a threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Cambodia. In the course of his political evolution–whatever his real or imputed ideological commitments–that never was to change. It can be argued that by the time he reached early maturity, Sar–whatever else he was–was a political and cultural nationalist. Before their disappearance into history, the Red Khmer, the revolutionaries led by Sar as Pol Pot, maintained that their purpose had always been to “defend and forever maintain their nation, people, and race. Whatever else they claimed to be, the Khmers Rouges gave ample testimony of being reactive nationalists–with all that the notion implies.
It is pretty clear from this that Pol Pot had a powerful political agenda at play, where politics is something which can replace religion. In fact, in the book just quoted from, there are chapter titles as follows: Leninism: Revolution as Religion; Fascism: The State as Religion; and National Socialism: Race as Religion. These chapters show there is far more to the matrix of causality at play here than a simple lack of belief in a deity.
When looking at texts which analyse the causality of genocides, in particular the atrocities of Pol Pot, I found the following to be the case (this is quoted from my facebook discussion):
It’s interesting that in Kiernan’s book “The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia Under the Khmer” which looks in depth at Pol Pot’s murderous regime, the word atheism/t does not appear in the whole book, God only twice, insignificantly (one in a quote about Siva, another in a direct quote that is not relevant here). Fawthrop and Jarvis’ book “Getting Away with Genocide?: Elusive Justice and the Khmer Rouge Tribunal” has no mention of the word atheism/t either. The same for Andeeopouloos’ “Genocide: Conceptual and Historical Dimensions”.
In answer to question 2), then, I challenge that atheism is at all properly the cause of such atrocities. Of Pol Pot, William Vollmann writes, in talking of a British journalist’s approach to the genocide of Cambodia (Vollmann is reviewing Philip Short’s biography of Pol Pot):
In other words, he seems to say, what Pol Pot did was hardly beyond the Cambodian ordinary. ”Every atrocity the Khmers Rouges ever committed, and many they did not, can be found depicted on the stone friezes of Angkor . . . or, in more recent times, in the conduct of the Issaraks,” the anti-French insurgents…
This is perhaps a little generous because there was no doubt an awful lot more politics going on, with a strong communist agenda. Vollmann continues:
Perhaps the problem is that Pol Pot was mediocre in almost every sphere: a failed technical student, an uninspired military leader who wasted the lives of his troops in badly planned offensives and ignored emergencies, a misguided ruler. In sum, Pol Pot would exert little claim on our attention were it not for the fact that millions died through his cruelty and incompetence. In ”Brother Number One,” Chandler admits defeat at the outset: ”I was able to build up a consistent, but rather two-dimensional picture. . . . As a person, he defies analysis.”
Vollmann’s analysis seems to point to the complexity of understanding such a man. In a paper looking at the psychological characteristics of a commandant of a torture and death camp in Cambodia, Paul Wilson observes:
This finding lends weight to the view that an individuals’ involvement in genocide and other related crimes is best understood as a complex interaction between the situation people find themselves in during times of war or civil conflict and their personality characteristics.
“It’s atheism wot did it” doesn’t really cut the mustard. That said, communism, an incredibly strong political drive and drive for power, and sustaining that power, is certainly integral to what went on. This simplistic attitude is summed up nicely in Renee Nabors’ piece (“Genocidal Triviality: An Analysis of the Perpetrators of the Holocaust and Cambodian Genocide”):
A common myth about the Holocaust and the Cambodian Genocide, authored for its convenience and political correctness, is that the perpetrators, aside from the high command, were either coerced or brainwashed. A grave but crucial reality of the genocides, however, lies in their origins. The common German citizen committed genocide; the ordinary Cambodian sustained the murder of 2 million. By choosing not to understand genocide, we compromise our ability to prevent it….
To understand how the tragedy of the Cambodian genocide came to be, it is important to note the ideology and political culture that defined the country at the time. Pol Pot believed wholeheartedly in Maoist thought, from which he derived his ideas about forced egalitarianism, cutting ties from the outside world, and destroying anciently rooted culture. He was at best, however, a mediocre student of Mao.… Furthermore, he failed to learn from Mao Zedong that the consequence of mass social experimentation was utter chaos. The fact that Cambodia’s “Brother Number One” understood only superficially the ideology on which he based his revolution is significant. It shows that the typical farmer’s boy Khmer Rouge soldier did not join because he thought highly of Marx, nor because he considered Pol Pot to be particularly brilliant, but because it was something to grasp on to. Pol Pot was not the end, but rather the means by which a desperate and fractionalized people sought a better life….
…The ability of Pol Pot, in four years, to create an obscure and unfounded deadly good versus evil fantasy and still maintain a strong cult-of-personality and international apathy is incomparably disturbing.
It is interesting to note that, again, Nabors’ fascinating piece makes no mention of God, or a lack thereof. Atheism is not on the table, it plays no defining role.
And much the same can be said of Stalin, where “enemies of the people” were killed or made to do forced labour. It was not because Stalin did not believe in God. And here I will answer question 3) fairly frankly. I am an atheist for all intents and purposes) and yet I stand starkly against such genocide. Why? Because a lack of belief in God (or a positive claim that God does not exist) does not define my politics, nor my morality. Atheists comprise a growing proportion of the world’s population, and yet they also adhere to the myriad of different politics and moralities that the world has to offer. Whilst one could say that, on balance, atheists are perhaps more liberal (socially) than religionists, one cannot claim that people’s atheism causes them to commit particular acts. I contend that people’s politics are more core to their beliefs, being based much on in-group / out-group psychology and intuitive desires, such that atheism or theism take a second place in an internal hierarchy within most.
As Blackford claims:
Sorting out the roles played by religious or antireligious beliefs, as opposed to such things as worldly ambition and lust for glory, is often a nontrivial task, and we should be careful before adopting simplistic narratives. In the case of twentieth-century communist regimes, much of the death toll – perhaps most of it – arose from utterly ruthless attempts to effect economic transformations on a near-apocalyptic scale….
While all this is a horrible indictment of the Soviet leadership and perhaps the ideology that the leaders embraced, little of it relates to atheism as such. Indeed, the Soviet Union did not have a uniformly antagonistic relationship to religion, and the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church supported the regime’s military initiatives, such as suppression of the uprising in Hungary, the building of the Berlin Wall, and the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan (Baggini, 2003, p. 88).
Both Stalin and Pol Pot sought to create a utopia through social and economic reform and engineering on a gargantuan scale. Blackford’s chapter on this very myth is forceful, and he sums up the misguided approach with aplomb:
While we do not doubt that religious people were often targeted as enemies of all these regimes’ grandiose plans, this was usually because churches and other religious authorities (such as those related to Confucian tradition in China) were seen as actual or potential sources of resistance. Once again, the Soviet authorities were not always on bad terms with the Orthodox Church, and the aim of these communist regimes was to suppress any opposition, from whatever source, while carrying out massive transformations of their countries’ economic bases. There was plenty of fanaticism involved, but mainly about holding onto power and engaging in mass-scale forms of social engineering – whether agricultural collectivization, forced urbanization, or, as in the case of Pol Pot’s ‘‘Democratic Kampuchea,’’ forced deurbanization and abandonment of learning and technology.
None of this follows from mere atheism, and instead far more comprehensive political and economic ideologies were relied upon. These bear little resemblance to the views of most thinkers in the rationalist tradition that dates back to ancient Greece, and they are remote from anything found in the thinking of high-proﬁle atheists involved in current debates – ‘‘celebrity atheists,’’ to use Abramovich’s trivializing expression – who tend to be political liberals and pluralists. Indeed, con- temporary atheists tend to oppose comprehensive, apocalyptic ideologies such as Nazism, Stalinism, and Pol Pot’s agrarian socialism, partly because these imitate so many of the features of monotheistic religion – aspects of religion that contributed historically to pogroms, witch hunts, and inquisitions.
So in conclusion, I think that theists who posit atheism as a necessary or defining causal factor in these atrocities is doing a disservice to history, politics and rational thought. It is evident that this prima facie approach to understanding what caused such genocide and atrocity is very naive, at best. That the experts in the relevant fields fail to see atheism as not even a, let alone the, driving factor is telling.
But what does this say about atheists’ claims of religious causality with regard to supposedly religiously driven atrocity, be it the Spanish Inquisition or the Crusades, or even modern day Islamic extremism? Well, for a start, one must treat each historical event on a case by case basis, and one must be careful not to commit hypocrisy, for sure.
There is, though, a huge difference; that being that there is no defining ‘holy book’ or text which seeks to dictate what atheists should or shouldn’t do as some divine diktat. This is crucial. One can hardly call atheism into causal importance when all atheism states is that there is no god. Yet the Qu’ran states,
“Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Messenger have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection.” Qur’an 9:29
“Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great.” Qur’an 4:34
Or perhaps it is worth considering some Yahwistic commands (from the Leviticus entry in the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible):
- If you refuse to kill someone who gives his seed to Molech, God set his face against you and your family.20:4-5
- “For every one that curseth his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.” Couldn’t we try spanking first? 20:9
- Both parties in adultery shall be executed. 20:10
- If a man has sex with his father’s wife, kill them both. 20:11
- If a man “lies” with his daughter-in-law, then both must be killed. 20:12
- If a man has sex with another man, kill them both. 20:13
- If you “lie” with your wife and your mother-in-law (now that sounds fun!), then all three of you must be burned to death. 20:14
- If a man or woman “lie with a beast” both the person and the poor animal are to be killed. 20:15-16
- People with “familiar spirits” (witches, fortune tellers, etc.) are to be stoned to death. 20:27
- A priest’s daughter who “plays the whore” is to be burned to death. 21:9
Granted, we all know the horrible verses and commands in the Bible, so you get the point. Suffice it to say that there is some solid divine benchmarking for some seriously dubious behaviour. On the other hand, “There is no god” tells you nothing. It dictates, commands, decrees and countenances not.
Rather than criticise atheists in their own way, it might pay to make sure their own religious tracts are not telling them to do terrible things. After all, the Bible was used to countenance slavery for 2,000 years. There literally is no counterpart for the Bible to atheists. We cannot be told to do something in such terms. Yes, there are probably, undoubtedly, more complex reasons as to why the Aztecs died at the hands of the Spanish conquistadores, probably less complex reasons for the Crusades and the Inquisition. One must remember that if such events are to be compared with such heinous ‘atheistic’ crimes of genocide, then a fair comparison must be made, and this must be one of intention. In other words, you cannot compare such events in real terms. Atheistic Stalin killed millions because he had the instruments and infrastructure to do so. But was his intention any different to, say, a Christian Crusader king? If the Crusader had weapons of mass destruction and transportation devices at his fingertips, would he have caused much greater destruction? Of course. Populations were also much smaller, so given less ability and smaller numbers of people in real terms, of course earlier religious atrocities seemed less repugnant. And so the questions should be:
- Were the intentions any different?
- What proportion of the target were killed?
- Was religion causally crucial?
- If the context was changed to a more modern era, would there have been much more widespread destruction?
Yet I have shown, I hope, that atheism wasn’t a central causal factor in the genocides of the twentieth century anyway; moreover, one could argue that religion did play an important causal role in many atrocities throughout history.
However, it is easy to scapegoat humans on account of singular ideas and factors. Life ain’t that simple. Things are complex; why people do things is a complex thing to tease apart. And, essentially, humans can be right bastards. Quite often the most obvious thing can be the overriding cause: humanity. Lust and greed for power, resources, and a distorted idea of utopia. It’s bleak, but potentially accurate, and it might even get atheism and religion off the hook. I said might.