Straw Man: 20th Century Atheist regimes are responsible for the worst massacres in history.
This argument has become a thought terminating cliché which serves both as a cautionary tale of what happens when we turn away from God, and also as an attempt to equal the ledger in discussions relating to religious violence.
This argument erroneously presupposes we accept that atheism was pivotal in causing violence in the fascist and communist regimes of the 20th century. Accordingly, ‘atheistic regimes’ are supposedly an example of the dangers of ‘atheism’ in practice. Where we might have previously said, Communist Regimes, or Totalitarian Regimes, for the purposes of argument we rebrand them Atheistic Regimes, employing a rather transparent form of Humpty Dumptyism in order to pin the blame on atheism. The argument is used a return argument, a Tu quoque fallacy, to divert attention from religious violence.
Firstly, as an absolute knockdown, Nazi Germany was not even an atheist state. Germany was a 95% Christian country when it went to war in 1939. As Christopher Hitchens was fond of pointing out the first Treaty signed by the Nazi regime was with the Catholic Church exchanging political influence for control of German education. Hitler ascribed his victories to divine Providence, and encouraged his own personal deification. Soldiers had ‘Gott min uns’ (god on our side) inscribed on their belt buckles, and party members took the following oath under God – “I swear in the name of almighty God, my loyalty to the Fuhrer?” Hitler was explicit: Nazi Germany was, and would always be, a Christian nation.
Historians such as biographers John Toland cite Hitler’s Catholic background in having an influence on his fervent Anti-Semitism. Following meetings with Hitler, General Gerhard Engel and Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber wrote that Hitler was a believer in God. The references to Hitler’s contempt for Christianity in the memoirs of some of his confidantes seem to be the root of the association of Nazism with non-belief. However, these references are at odds with his public announcements, and the memories of some of his other contemporaries. Although his personal religious views varied throughout his life, Nazi public policy contained a consistent commitment to Christianity. The Party and developed Positive Christianity to do to further its own needs, which involved a hard line reinterpretation which was particularly Anti-Semitic with a trajectory towards deifying the Fuhrer himself who was said by Hanns Kerrl, Reichsminister of Church Affairs, to be the “herald of a new revelation”.
Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, pg 307.
“Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”
Hitler did not act alone. Using propaganda he fanned the flames of popular Christian Anti-Semitism, its perceived relation to Bolshevism, and promoted a policy of racial purity and Arian superiority. As a scapegoat for the humiliation Germany suffered at Versailles, Jews were reviled as subhuman, commonly held to be treacherous creatures, undeserving of pity; beliefs which made the final solution possible.
The views of Hitler on Jews are hardly unique or unchristian – his own views are a product of the centuries of Christianity which preceded him. Consider the 1543 Anti-Jewish Pamphlet by Martin Luther ‘On the Jews and their Lies’ wherein he referred to Jews as “poisonous bitter worms”, “miserable and accursed people”, “brood of vipers” [Matt. 3:7], “truly stupid fools…”, “they are nothing but thieves and robbers”, “great vermin of human ordinances”, and “these lazy rogues. Anti-Semitism has its roots well before Nazism, as Martin Luther’s recommendations in dealing with Jews indicate:
“First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom…”
“Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”
“Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”
“Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb.”
“Fifth, I advise that safeconduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews.”
“Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping.”
“Seventh,…letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow..”
The pamphlet ‘Jews and their Lies’ was displayed Nazi Nuremberg rallies, and the scholarly view is that it had a major influence on German attitudes to Jews from the Reformation to the Holocaust. (refer: Wallmann, Johannes. “The Reception of Luther’s Writings on the Jews from the Reformation to the End of the 19th Century”, Lutheran Quarterly, n.s. 1 (Spring 1987).
So the arrow flung at atheism for Nazi atrocities might, at least in part, be redirected towards historical Christian Anti-Semitism, not to mention the other drivers of Nazism – Nationalism, humiliation at Versailles, Racial purity, Utopian ideals, Fascism, and the cult of personality of Hitler himself. Nazi Germany was not an atheist regime, atheist country, and nor was it motivated by atheism.
But what of countries that have embraced atheism as a national creed – The Soviet Union under Stalin, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia? The atrocities of these regimes were not primarily motivated by atheism but by the crushing of dissent in fulfilling the utopian creed of which atheism was but a tenet. To blame atheism is a Fallacy of Division: when one reasons logically that something true for the whole must also be true of all or some of its parts. Atheism, as a part of Stalin’s or Pol Pot’s regimes, cannot necessarily be judged as equivalent to the whole regime, and the specific causes for the violence require further investigation.
Reflecting on the primary goals of Communism as described by Marx and Engels in redistribution of wealth and changes to the social, political and economic order, atheism was but a secondary consideration. The Soviet State under of Stalin was epitomized by the paranoia and power crazed nature of its leader resulting in purges of all potential opposition. The perceived necessity for the government to control its’ subjects by force seems to have provided the leaders with the tools to prolong their own grasp on power; men who would be tyrants tended to obtain and keep power. One might make the case that Communism is a failed political system which appears to result in totalitarianism, murderous despots, and failed economic reforms. 20th Century Communism, like Nazism, is based on a utopian vision for society where human rights are sacrificed for the common good, where the end justifies the means, and where totalitarianism usurps the will of the individual.
Abandonment of faith in God in favor of worship at the altar of science or reason is also often invoked as part of the ‘atheistic regimes’ fallacy. Since atheism does not necessarily entail ‘blind faith’ in science, or anything else, this point is a straw man, but even so the argument is ahistorical. In China the Great leap forward was a disastrous economic experiment which caused millions of deaths through famine resulting primarily from inept planning. The agrarian reforms of the Soviet Union also featured bad science and a reliance on Communist dogma with the same results – famine, and millions of deaths. Nazi Germany featured pseudo-science driven policies such as eugenics and racism aimed at purification. Pol Pot relocated urban dwellers to the country in order to tend farms and work in forced labor projects resulting in widespread malnutrition and death. Science was subordinate to socialist and communist dogma, and the policies pursued were often unscientific. Scientists did just fine in totalitarian states unless they challenged authority in which case they were killed, forced into exile or put in prison camps.
Pol Pot was not an atheist. A Thervada Buddhist, he believed in irrationalities such as karma, amd that heaven was guiding him in his efforts to transform his country into a Communist utopia. Cambodia was Buddhist and the Khmer Rouge adopted and mirrored elements of Buddhist thought such a dhamma, and the renunciation of material goods and sentimentality. Hitler was a Christian influenced by Martin Luther, Stalin was an altar boy educated in a seminary, and Pol Pot was educated at a Catholic School for 10 years and then at a Buddhist one. If correlation is all that matters we could easily draw the conclusion that religion is crucial to causing the atrocities of these regimes. Alas, the causes are to be found beyond considerations of belief or non-belief.
Correlation does not prove causation
A correlation between Atheism and the despotic communist regimes of the 20th century does not imply causation. Proponents of this view seem to make the connection due to their own pre-existing biases, reasoning that without Christianity (or other faith) as a controlling force these regimes cut the cord to morality. There is no evidence to support the view that the irreligious are less good than the religious. The rich history of religious violence, continued in the present day by ISIS, Boko Haram, Christian militias in central Africa, and many other religious groups demonstrates how myopic this view is. Atheists are drastically underrepresented is US prisons at 0.07%, compared to 1.6% of the general population (2008).
One observes that attitudes to violence have changed dramatically in the last century. In previous centuries capital punishment was common. Divinely ordained monarchs were not squeamish when it came to dealing with their enemies. The revered Queen Elizabeth I had 71 of her subjects hanged, drawn and quartered, many on the basis of their religious affiliation. The guilty were dragged by horse on a wooden frame to a public place where they were hanged by the neck until almost dead, then placed on a table, disemboweled, their sex organs were removed and burned, after which they were finally decapitated. The corpse was then hacked into four pieces, which were placed on display in different parts of the city or country. The crime of treason, often identified by religious affiliation, was often punished in this gruesome manner; the Christian doctrines of peace and mercy were apparently no obstacle. The torture chambers in the Inquisitions featuring some of the most sadistic and morally repellent punishments devised by men – the Rack, the Heretics Fork, the Pear, the Strappado, Judas Cradle, the Breast ripper, the Garrotte, Breaking on the Wheel, and of course, burning at the stake. These were not undertaken in the grip of passion, or with a temporary loss of sanity, they were premeditated crimes, reasoned and thought out based on the practical application of scripture. The parallel with totalitarianism is self-evident: the ideology demands compulsory adherence on pain of torture and death. If the absence of faith in God severs the moral urge in humans it is curious that we seem to have become progressively more adverse to extreme violence over time, concurrent with an increase in secularism, humanitarian attitudes, and democratic governments.
20th Century violence not the worst
Steven Pinker, in his magnificent The Better Angels of our Nature, provides ample data that violence is declining historically. We are becoming more peaceable when we measure violence in proportion to the world population (which is surely a more accurate measure than by total numbers of deaths given the dramatic increase in the global population). When understood in proportion to the total global population, the 20th century does not represent a high point of violence in history, and in fact its second half has been notable for a lasting peace. The Crusades, unambiguously religiously motivated, resulted in 1 million deaths out of a total world population of 400 million, proportionally higher than the Holocaust. The carnage resulting from the religious Thirty Years War was double that of World War I, and about the same as World War II, when compared as a percentage of world population. This data takes some steam out of the belief that the last century featured extraordinary violence requiring a special explanation.
Perspective – Utopian political systems and Totalitarianism
The large death tolls of the 20th Century are better understood in comparing the rise of utopian political systems rather than their religious affiliations. As countries have shifted away from political systems such as Nazism and Communism, abandoned totalitarianism, as they have embraced universal human rights and became secular liberal democracies we have had a period of comparative peace. There are also a myriad of other specific reasons explaining the violence of the 20th Century. It is simplistic to characterize societies as if they are driven by a single idea, even those led by genocidal despots feature a range of ideas and interests represented in an ideology. Fascism co-existed with Catholicism in various countries, and Cold War allegiances were driven by the political system rather than the religious affiliation. Weapons became more destructive, capable of killing en masse early in the 20th century allowing for higher death tolls than before. Ethnic cleansing, military juntas, political instability, sectarian violence and other reasons have all contributed.
Atheism does not demand State Atheism
‘State Atheism,’ the official promotion of atheism as an enforced belief by government (employed by Communist regimes), must be distinguished from mere ‘atheism.’ Most modern atheists support Secularism not State Atheism. There are no new atheists I am aware of who argue for atheism to be state sponsored and enforced on pain of loss of liberty, torture and death. This highlights a crucial distinction between religious ideologies and non-religious ones. Christianity suggests an evangelical requirement on believers, and if it were actually true that an eternity in Hell awaits non-believers then one would indeed be doing good by forcing others to conform to its’ doctrines. Fervent believers in Islam are also determined for the religion to be practiced by all. Harsh punishments, including the death penalty still exist in many parts of the world for apostasy and atheism.
State Atheism represents a totalitarian ideology abhorrent to most modern atheists, humanists and secularists, and is an indictment on the collaboration between utopian ideologies and totalitarian political systems, not atheism itself. Atheism necessitates only a lack of belief or disbelief in god(s); it is not necessary to adhere to an ideology seeking to enforce compulsory belief on all. This is where the straw man of the ‘atheistic’ regimes argument is erected. Atheism is conflated with State atheism, symptomatic of the apologetic habit of measuring aspects of atheism in contradistinction to aspects of religion, as if they are diametrically opposed to one another with equivalent but opposite qualities. Atheism is broadened into a tapestry of irreligious ideologies often including such things as scientism, social Darwinism, eugenics, Communism and totalitarianism. The new atheists are not arguing for State atheism, any more than they are promoting theocratic rule. Pluralism is an ideal common to atheists, one that stands in stark contrast to totalitarianism.
So in summary the Fallacy of the ‘atheistic regimes’ argument encounters the following decisive objections:
- Nazism was not atheistic
- It is a Fallacy of Division to equate atheism with larger political systems which might include it as a tenet
- Atheism was not the prime motivator of the violence undertaken the fascist and communist totalitarian regimes of the 20thcentury
- No evidence suggesting decline in religious belief, or atheism, leads to an increase in violence, although plenty of evidence suggests the opposite
- The 20thcentury was not the most violent in history
- The cause of violence and the passage to non-violence is better understood in terms of the rise and fall of utopian totalitarian states
- Atheists do not support or promote State Atheism
Facing these objections the straw man falls. Atheism does not suffer any guilt by association with Communist dictatorships and tyrannical despots. Their delusions of grandeur, false ideologies and lust for power were far more urgent motivators than the influence of a lack of belief in God. It might be comforting for the apologists of religion to rationalize the violence done in its name by invoking the fallacy of atheist regimes but they are forced to ignore history to do so. Historians don’t think atheism is the cause of 20th Century violence – they point to the specific range of drivers in each case. The failure to make elementary distinctions, an incurious and cherry picked view of history is symptomatic of starting with a conclusion and then trying to furnish it with evidence.