Saturday, May 12, 2007

Religion vs. Atheism Part 2

Often when critics of religion like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens mention the amount of blood - and its a lot - spilled in the name of some god or another through history, the religiously inclined retort that atheism has wiped out its fair share of people as well. Nay, they say, atheism has killed MORE people because the greatest butchers of all time, the dictators of the 20th century such as Hitler and Stalin massacred people on a scale that religious atrocities such as the Inquisition never had a hope of approaching. Ergo, they argue, atheism is worse than religion. Religion might make some people behave badly, but atheism is much much worse.

It's a curious argument to be sure. It both misses the point of what thinkers like Hitchens or Dawkins are saying and is, for the most part, wrong - particularly when it comes to idiots like Stalin and Hitler.

Firstly, what Dawkins et al are saying is this: Religion doesn't, at the end of the day, make anyone behave any better than they do without it. On the other hand, because most religions draw stark lines between believers and non-believers, and often is extremely hostile toward non-believer to the point of utter condemnation, religion provides an easy justification to harm, perhaps to the point of killing, other people of different points of view. The Inquisition is justified and motivated by faith. The nuts who kill abortion doctors justify their murders through their faith. The 9-11 terrorists and the entire Islamlist Jihadist world view is motivated by and justified by their faith.

Now by the same token, you never hear of an atheist blowing himself up in a pizza shop or crashing a plane into a skyscraper and the like. The reason is because atheism is not a belief. It has no codes or creeds. It has no priests, pastors or popes. It has no bibles, scriptures or commandments written on stones. It has no organization at all. There is no atheist code that says someone should be stoned because they don't believe in god, or who they sleep with, or for working on a Saturday or Sunday.

What atheism is, all atheism is, is someone saying they will not believe something for which there is no evidence. Period. Atheism by definition provides no justification for killing anyone for any reason at all. There might be a justifiable reason to kill another person such as in self defense. But that has nothing to do with the intellectual position of not believing in an invisible, supernatural god or gods on the say so of an ancient book without a shred of evidence.

So whereas religions often provide explicit instructions on when and how to murder someone - just read up your Old Testament for instance - atheism provides no such justifications.

So, that said, when the religiously inclined say the worst horrors in history committed by Stalin and Hitler are the horrors committed by atheists, because they are atheists, do they even have a leg to stand on?

No. They assume, incorrectly, that atheism must have the same kinds of rules about how, who and when to kill as their own religion does. And they make a further mistake by labeling Hitler an Stalin as atheists in the first place.

First lets deal with genocidal moron #1 - Adolf Hitler. Was he an atheist? Nope. Hitler was raised as a Catholic, but would end up rejected Catholicism. However, he believed in God and Jesus often referred to himself as Christian - although his Christianity was something most Christians I know would not , thankfully, recognize as their faith at all. Nevertheless, what this loony advocated was a Nazified version of Christianity sometimes called "Positive Christianity" which saw Jesus as an active fighter against Jews. This sort of intense anti-semitism was in vogue not just in Germany, but all over the western world at the time. Hitler used this as part of his justification for his insane "final solution". It also served as part of the whole Nazi thing, in which their nationalist nonsense took on a religious life of its own - complete with blind faith and obedience to a higher power...only in this case, the higher power was a ex-house painter with a lousy mustache.

It would be, I think, incorrect to say Hitler did what he did solely because of his religious beliefs. But it is totally incorrect to say that Hitler was an atheist. He was religious.

Now, genocidal moron #2 - Joesph Stalin. Was this comrade an atheist? So far as I know, and I stand to be corrected, yes he was. However, did Stalin do what he did because he was an atheist? Nope.

Compared to his one-time Nazi ally, Stalin's actions and attitudes toward religion are more complex. He was utterly hostile to organized religion and went after the Russian Orthodox Church with a zeal that would chill Chingis Khan, (but as a sometimes pragmatist, he let them alone during World War 2 because they were a "patriotic organization"). The question is why. Atheism has no creeds or codes that could be used to justify his actions. Rather, Stalin's violence was in part a result of his nutty paranoid personality and the repressive nature of the Soviet government that he, along with Lenin before him, had built.

The USSR under Stalin was, like Nazi Germany, a hyper-nationalistic state (created so by lethal force). The state had to replace religion because the only loyalty could be to the state - and what's more, that state had its leader to which you had to totally loyal and obedient. It was cult of personality. Stalin's face was everywhere from photos in classrooms to huge paintings in public places. Stalin was destroying religions, in part, as a way to wipe out the competition. He needed Soviet citizens to be loyal to him and him alone - not to Jesus or Buddha or Mohammad. Undoubtedly, that he didn't personally believe in any of the teachings of the religions he was crushing helped the process is must easier to destroy something you have no stake in after all. But his justifications, rooted as they were in the cult of personality he created and the whole Soviet communist philosophical clap-trap, underpinned his actions, not his unbelief in god.

At the end of the day, the term "atheism" might not even properly apply here. What he created was not an atheistic state. Stalinism was the state "faith". He created a Stalinist state using ubiquitous propaganda, a personality cult and secret police to establish himself as an absolute dictator. Stalin was not so much an atheist as he was the ultimate Stalinist. (Although he never used the term to describe himself. He was an "Marxist-Leninist", he would have said, and like Nazism, the whole Marxist-Leninist dogma required a complete surrender of yourself to a idea unsupported by evidence...just like in most religions.)

Both the Nazi and Stalinist regimes had all the hallmarks of a religion, and were not particularly atheist states at all. They both created a culture that crushed skeptical inquiry - the only true hallmark of atheist thinking - and enforced blind obedience and loyalty. To question the state, was to question the truth of the world as these governments defined it...and to deny that was to forfeit your life. The only reason their death tolls were of an order of magnitude greater than the religious atrocities that came before them was not because Hitler was not a "proper" Christian or because Stalin didn't believe in god. It was because Hitler and Stalin had access to technology that simply hadn't existed before.

Consider what the Inquisition would have been capable of if they had guns, tanks, gas chambers and other 20th century tools of death. It's a sobering thought.


mountain king said...

You said that society had given civilization something similar to the ten commandements and therefore they aren't that important. But like who?, you gave the idea that democracy came from the greeks but as far as I know the Seven Sages of Greece lived at 6th century BCE, the ten commandements were during 14th century bce. You haven't given much examples

And regarding the population and the Technology at the 20th century. Never mind that Stalin and Mao didn’t use any of those weapons. They relied on primitive techniques of murder, such as forced relocation, forced labor, and forced starvation. Besides, that caveats of yours hardly changes the overall calculu. Furthermore the 100 million deaths is actually a low estimate, they include Stalin and Mao alone ignoring other tyrants like Enver Hoxha. It also ignores that others get the death toll significantly higher like Rummel. 70 million for the PRC and 60 million for the USSR?

Lastly religion didn't disappear in the last century. Look at this:

How many did religion kill in the last century?, actually it doesn';t even make the top 10. The only example we have is the second hand Second Sudanese war and the war in afghanistan. But that of course conveniently ignores that this is Islam and not Christianity and that the USSR did most of the killings, not the religious people themselves

Grant LaFleche said...

Mr. King;

I have to wonder if you read what I wrote, or merely glossed it over because not only have you misrepresented what I are also presenting a horrible misreading of history itself..

Firstly, I say every civilization has whipped up some list of ethical rules similar to what Jews and Christians regard as the 10 Commandments. These differ from culture to culture, but general prohibitions against killing and stealing always exist. (the details about god are irrelevant because the god or gods from each culture are different). This is because of our evolutionary history which created cooperative behavior.

As for democracy, you've not only not read what I wrote, but apparently know nothing of history. It is true that democracy begins in Athens at the end of the 6th Century. However the "seven sages" had NOTHING to do with it. Some of the seven sages are Spartan for crying out loud. This leads me to think that you are unaware of the differences between the Greek city states. As for your date of 14th century BCE for the 10 commandements....there is actually no reliable scholarship to back such a claim besides the claims of hard core conservatives. But lets assume they existed in some form for the moment. What has that to do with the history of democracy? NOTHING! Democracy was created in Athens with no references to Hebrew religious texts. Moreover, I challenge you to find anything in the Old Testament about created a democracy, the right to vote, the definition of citizenship, the right to a public assembly, and all the other hallmarks of Athenian democracy. You will find none. My example about the formation of democracy is utterly correct, friend. It is you who have got history wrong.

I did not claim that religions has disappeared. You aught to pay mind to what people actually say before your try and rip into them.

As for Stalin and the like and your claim they didn't use modern technology. The Nazi death camps used gas chambers and vans to kill millions. The death camps of Stalin used BULLETS to kill and kill and kill. You can kill a whole lot more people with guns than you can with stones or swords. You need to pay head to actual history to make the kind of claims you are.

Your list of religious wars in the last century is ridiculously narrow. You leave out the current situation in Iraq, the wars in Africa, the wars in Bosnia, the wars in Cambodia. If in the western world we have seen a massive drop in religious wars in the last 200 years, its because Western democracy are secular and have taken the reigns of power away from religion. That is a just a fact.

Anonymous said...

The war in Iraq has absolutly nothing to do with religion. The war in Iraq startet because of USA and oil problems. If you think islam startet the war in Iraq, you must've slept on both ears and closed your eyes. Religion is being used as an excuse to preform actions in the benifit of power and money. Religion is beautifull in it self. People make religion look like "the Bad guy", but if you read and understand the concept of what religion is trying to learn us (love, respect (both against others and ourselves) etc..), you too would be weisser.

Since you haven't proved the none-excistens of God, don't think you know better.
I might be wrong for believing in God, but at least I won't loose anything. I would rather fase the afterlife with a bag and find out I didn't need it, than fase afterlife and realise I'm short on everything I need.