Have Godless Societies
Killed More People?
I was wondering if you could help me answer a question that I was confronted with when discussing my atheist views. The person said that Atheism is responsible for more death and violence than Christians. He points out that atheism was present in Communist regimes (atheism is a major point in Communism) in the Soviet Union and Cambodia which killed millions of people. How would I respond to that? Is he right by saying that Godless societies are dangerous and have done more to harm people than Christian societies?
Thanks for your thoughts,
From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: "Stevo Frenko"
Subject: Re: A Question
Date: Friday, March 30, 2001 9:25 PM
Okay, let's see what we can do to keep from falling for this line again, because it's a tricky one that involves several omissions of fact. Despite the patent dishonesty behind this argument, it is quite popular among those who wish to slander atheists and atheism.
Before I start, though, we must remember not to confuse the question of atheism versus Christianity with that of ancient versus modern war machines: Stalin and Hitler killed more people than the Popes did simply because they had better technology with which to commit genocide. Also, the population was high enough in the 20th century to account for these numbers. The popes took over after the bubonic plague had taken out roughly 100 million Europeans: there were relatively few people left for the Popes to kill.
Your opponent misrepresents atheism as being both a positive claim and a comprehensive philosophy. Theists often find this false report very useful in their denunciations of atheism (actually, their attempts to paint theism as superior to atheism).
First, the truth is that atheism is (philosophically) negative in the sense that atheism is the absence of theism; atheism is not a collection of claims or credos but is simply the absence of a religious creed. In other words, atheism is not a "strong" assertion. Atheism is "weak" (philosophically) in that atheism rejects a claim or falls short of granting assent to a claim. Theists say "A God exists," and an atheist says, "I don't think so." The atheist is not saying anything about what does exist, but is simply either denying the theist's claim that a god exists or refusing to assent to that claim for whatever reason.
Secondly, atheism is not a comprehensive outlook but is merely one small part of any atheist's entire world view. Naturally most theists take on much more than a simple god belief when they convert to theism. The same does not hold for atheism, the lack of theistic belief. But this can be deceiving because theism has in it very little that is unique to theism. Most of it is about party loyalty.
Communism proved to the world that killing people over ideology is not the exclusive domain of religion. Previously, the Freethinkers could say this; now, we cannot. For the first time, atheism became popular enough within a culture to be exploited as a tool to bolster a sense of nationalism. Until then, only religion has been used in this way.
True, all loyal Communists were atheists, but they were atheists because of their Communism -- not Communists because of their atheism. In fact, Communism dictated that Soviet citizens (subjects) become atheists, which went much further than the role Christianity then played in America, when our currency did not say, "In God We Trust" and our Pledge of Allegiance did not say, "under God." This situation is rapidly changing in America today, partly as a reaction to Communism: before, Christianity was simply a choice that America offered her citizens; since the Cold War, Christianity has been exploited to bolster an American sense of nationalism.
The role that atheism played in Communism was as that of State Dogma (I will fall short of saying State Religion). This is most easily seen in the pronouncements of the Soviet Cosmonauts. Yuri Gagarin, the first man in orbit (preceding John Glenn by a few weeks), announced from his capsule: "I don't see any god up here" -- as if that has anything even remotely to do with what the Christians claim; this is, rather, a show of nationalistic contempt toward the United States. Gherman Titov, the first man to spend any significant amount of time in orbit, is quoted as saying, "I am high in the sky, and still I do not see the face of god" -- again showing contempt for the claims of Christianity, as a way to bolster Soviet nationalism against the United States.
Granted, at an appearance in San Francisco, Titov later expressed a balanced understanding of why he was not a theist: "I don't believe in God. I believe in man -- in his strength, his possibilities, and his reason." I am still not convinced that Titov had, at this point as a young man, sat down and thought out the reasons why he was an atheist. It is possible (and even likely) that he was never exposed to a fair presentation of theism until much later (if at all).
Thus, if anybody killed for Communism, they killed for Communism or for the Soviet Union, they did not kill for atheism. In fact, many atheistic Anarchists were killed by the Communists. But during the Inquisition and during the Witch Hunts, people killed for Christ and for no other reason. They burned our forebears in direct obedience to the command in John 15:6: "If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned." Atheism has no such commandment and needs the help of no State to make its case before humans.
Atheism can be exploited to foster party loyalty (although Christianity and Islam have proven much more effective at doing this), but there is nothing in atheism itself that would encourage even the notion of party loyalty. Both parties of opposition to Czarist Russia rebelled against the State Religion, and Marx's Communism happened to prevail. Had Bakunin's anarchism prevailed, I doubt we'd have seen the bloodshed we saw. And certainly had Representative Democracy prevailed, any murderous leaders would have been voted out without hesitation.
The bloodshed in the Soviet Union is everything about Communism and says nothing at all about atheism, because the cultural atheism of the Soviet Union, like the atheism of an individual human, was merely incidental to a much bigger scheme of things. Atheism is atheism; as such, atheism is nothing more than the absence of theism. Atheism is not a complete world view but simply one small component of any world view. Ideally, atheism plays an active role in one's thinking only in the face of theistic claims. For Christians to portray atheism as anything more than this is patently dishonest.
In fact, had the Soviet Union's Communism been based in religion (and several national Communist regimes have been thoroughly based in Christianity -- see Acts 4:32-5:11), I could show that there might have been even more bloodshed, because the Christian religion, being viciously intolerant of differing or opposing viewpoints, has historically been seen as either justifying or commanding the death of any dissenters.
Most modern "warm-and-fuzzy" Christians will call this an abuse of the Christian religion (and I tend to agree that modern Christianity ought to recognize people's right to hold other views). However, Christianity contains within it some extremely powerful methods for subjugating the masses. Christianity also happens to feature some very barbaric policies when it comes to dealing with dissenters. So Christianity has shown itself to be the favorite among would-be political power-mongers.
Nevertheless, there are atheists (individuals and entire cultures) whose theism has never been replaced by any Reason-based comprehensive system of outlook, such as liberal scientific method or Humanism. I know several people whose atheism is indistinguishable from fundamentalism. In fact, my exposure to such individuals led to my current focus of activism in that I stump for a particular form of atheism rather than for atheism itself.
Much of my activism involves an attempt to popularize the more accurate definition for the word atheism as the lack of a god belief rather than what the theists allege, a positive claim as well as a comprehensive world view. In light of this, our atheism is mainly a response to theism, and is not itself a topic of evangelism on our part. In this sense, we learn how to detect the wiles of the theists and to respond appropriately. But most of us leave theists to believe what they think is the truth.
However, I go further than this in my own studies, in that I try to think about my position (any position), thoroughly testing it against other options. But this is where we leave the realm of strict atheism and start to address other areas of our lives, areas to which atheism is only a secondary element. Relegating atheism to its proper secondary role is important to a balanced outlook that includes mention of atheism. But it is crucial that we keep atheism's secondary role in mind whenever we're being interrogated by a theist. The theist will inevitably try to paint atheism as something more than it really is, and then try to refute their portrayal rather than atheism itself.
Atheist philosopher George H. Smith, in his most recent book (Why Atheism?), promotes two "sideline" notions -- aspects of atheism that are in addition to atheism itself.
First, Smith encourages us to study our cultural roots as atheists. Two key chapters of this work consist of an overview of the history of the trends in thinking that eventually led to modern atheism (culminating in that "intellectually fulfilled" atheism which Richard Dawkins suggests is the result of Charles Darwin's work). The rest of Smith's book keeps this history in the forefront as it deals with other issues. I have previously studied the history of the rise of Rationalism and the demise of Christianity's prominence, and I have often called the Inquisition's martyrs "my forebears." But Smith's book has given to me a keen sense that the history of Rationalism is my cultural history.
Secondly, Smith shows that philosophy is not a cumulative science (in that when Einstein discovers something, we all benefit thereafter from Einstein's discovery) but is, rather, a personal science (wherein each individual student of philosophy must start afresh, mulling over the collected musings of the great thinkers of history and coming to individual conclusions). In other words, each student of philosophy must use her or his own powers of reason to scrutinize the the arguments and pronouncements of all of history's philosophers.
The result of this is that the student of philosophy not only holds various positions (or suspends judgment on some positions) but can state how he or she came to hold that position, and can defend it ably or revise it upon discovery of new evidence or a superior argument. Anybody can hold an opinion, but the philosopher will explain why she or he holds a given opinion.
So, it's one thing for Comrade Titov to say, "I don't believe in God" -- because any atheist can say this. But it's another thing altogether for the cosmonaut to have been able to hold his own in a discussion with, say, a Jesuit priest (on one end of the spectrum) or with a biblical creationist (on the other end of the spectrum).Only a student of philosophy (either formal or lay) will be able to tell you not only what her or his positions are on a subject, but also how he or she came to hold this position and what it would take to overthrow this position -- having weighed the various arguments surrounding this issue and, hopefully, even done some original thinking on the subject.
I will admit that I was unaware of this aspect of philosophy. With my new perspective on the study of philosophy, I have purchased the Columbia History of Western Philosophy, edited by Richard Popkin (published since Smith completed his book), and am about one-fifth of the way through this monumental work. Before Columbia was published, only two works dealing with the history of Western thought existed, and neither could be considered a comprehensive overview.
So, in light of all this, I might recommend two exercises: First, state my position as it relates to the claim of your opponent. Secondly, formulate your own response to your opponent that is not necessarily my position (that is, scrutinize my views as well as those of your opponent -- and, most importantly, scrutinize your own views, both before and after encountering your opponent's claim and my response).
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