My previous post rejected the idea that atheists deserve to be known as “angry” and “fundamentalist.” These are baseless and inaccurate terms often penned by critics unduly burdened by presuppositions. Another claim religious apologists make is that modern tyrannical regimes perpetrated “violence in the name of atheism.”
In a 2006 article for The Christian Science Monitor, conservative writer and apologist Dinesh D’Souza, after under-reporting the number of deaths caused by religion, laments:
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.
This type of fallacious thinking is common, and repeated over and over by the apologists who inflate the value of religion. Tim Padgett, a Roman Catholic writer for www.time.com, said this in the article I criticized a few days ago:
Atrocities have certainly been committed in the name of religion, from the autos-da-fé of the Inquisition to last month’s Islamist bombings of churches in Nigeria. Ogres have also butchered in the name of atheism, from Stalin to Pol Pot. But I would never hold atheism itself accountable for their evil, as Hitchens so often did with religion.
Consider the phrase used above: “butchered in the name of atheism.” It’s a bizarre phrase. Imagine some benighted swordsman, ready to strike his foe, shouting, “I smite thee in the name of atheism!” I just don’t think the mental process works that way, guys. D’Souza and Padgett are suggesting a link between a nonbelief of god and a tendency toward violence. Both men grab for this theistic off-the-shelf correlation and provide no evidence of causality.
Atheists don’t believe in god, and there is nothing more to it than that. “God exists” is a claim that an atheist can’t accept, and it’s the nonacceptance of this claim, and this claim only, that makes an atheist an atheist. Any additional ideology, value or assertion is not necessary or required for this nonbelief. Additional propositions, whatever they may be, require belief. They aren’t automatically adopted by nonbelievers.
It’s easy – too easy – to find the mechanism promoting religious violence. If an individual believes god commands a particular action, who is he to argue with god? Moses didn’t argue when god commanded him to order the execution of 3,000 fellow tribe members in Exodus 32. (Actually, Moses did argue: He talked god out of slaughtering the whole bunch and just murdering a few thousand. Nice.) Note to D’Souza: It appears you haven’t read the Bible you so fervently believe in. Please add the crimes of the god you worship to your tally of religious slaughter, it would be slightly more accurate.
The crimes of atheism have generally been perpetrated through a hubristic ideology that sees man, not God, as the creator of values. Using the latest techniques of science and technology, man seeks to displace God and create a secular utopia here on earth. … Thus they confirm the truth of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s dictum, “If God is not, everything is permitted.”
I would correct this sentence to say: “The crimes of totalitarian regimes have generally been perpetrated through the hubristic ideology that sees a single leader – a man – or ruling political party, not God, as the creator of values.” North Korea is a prime example of this deification of personality. The recently deceased leader, Kim Jong-il, was said to have supernatural powers. It was claimed that he shot 11 holes-in-one during his first golf game in 1994, and that his birth caused winter to change to spring. It has also been reported that he didn’t defecate. Probably too much of that North Korean cheese. This type of hero worship and the fostering of absurd beliefs and dogmas are what lead regimes astray, not atheism.
Recently, an excellent rebuttal to D’Souza and Padgett’s nonsense has been provided by psychologist Steven Pinker. He recently published a book titled, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. He answered some questions about the book on his website, and addressed the question of atheist regimes and violence. I’d like to quote from his answer at length:
First, the premise that Nazism and Communism were “atheist” ideologies makes sense only within a religiocentric worldview that divides political systems into those that are based on Judaeo-Christian ideology and those that are not. In fact, 20th-century totalitarian movements were no more defined by a rejection of Judaeo-Christianity than they were defined by a rejection of astrology, alchemy, Confucianism, Scientology, or any of hundreds of other belief systems. They were based on the ideas of Hitler and Marx, not David Hume and Bertrand Russell, and the horrors they inflicted are no more a vindication of Judeao-Christianity than they are of astrology or alchemy or Scientology.
Second, Nazism and Fascism were not atheistic in the first place. Hitler thought he was carrying out a divine plan. Nazism received extensive support from many German churches, and no opposition from the Vatican. Fascism happily coexisted with Catholicism in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Croatia. See p. 677 for discussion and references.
Third, according to the most recent compendium of history’s worst atrocities, Matthew White’s Great Big Book of Horrible Things (Norton, 2011), religions have been responsible for 13 of the 100 worst mass killings in history, resulting in 47 million deaths. Communism has been responsible for 6 mass killings and 67 million deaths. If defenders of religion want to crow, “We were only responsible for 47 million murders—Communism was worse!”, they are welcome to do so, but it is not an impressive argument.
Lastly, modern secular societies, such as Sweden, show very high levels of societal health, as indicated by low rates of homicide, poverty, infant mortality, and illiteracy rates, and have high levels of educational attainment, per capita income, and gender equality.
The lazy and unseemly assertions of D’Souza, Padgett, and others like them, get trite and weary. They are simply bogus. But what does one expect from religious apologists who see evidence as merely optional?