New on Ebon Musings: Red Crimes

A new essay, “Red Crimes“, has been posted on Ebon Musings. The essay surveys the crimes committed during the 20th century by totalitarian communist regimes, and critically examines the claim that atheism was in some way responsible for the bloodshed they caused.

This is an open thread. Comments and discussion are welcome.

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  • Boelf

    I think there is a concept that is broader and more important than atheism and that is skepticism. A true skeptic not only questions the beliefs of others but continues to look critically at his own beliefs. The skepticism of others is respected because it may shine light on our own hidden assumptions.

    I try to imagine how evil would survive if skepticism were the prominent world view. The answer would seem to be that there will always be beliefs that just have to be true. But if we could at least respect the right even obligation of those to question those beliefs surely we would be heading in the right direction.

  • Alex Weaver

    So, I guess the claims that communism somehow reflects on atheists are a “red herring?” ^.^

  • lpetrich

    Lots to comment on.

    Trofim Lysenko had some practical skill as a plant breeder, and a talent for self-promotion and ingratiating himself with his superiors, but that was about it. He considered statistical testing to be a waste of time, saying that his mentor Michurin had not needed statistics, so why should he? And visiting biologists stated that discussing biology with him was like discussing calculus with someone who did not know the multiplication table. But he impressed a lot of Communist Party officials with his claims of superior plant-breeding skill, and eventually none other than Comrade Joseph Stalin himself.

    His views on heredity were rather vague, but he apparently believed that all parts of an organism contributed to its heredity, an old view called pangenesis. Thus, the inheritance of acquired characteristics, which was how some of his experimental treatments were supposed to work.

    He claimed that genes do not exist, and he ridiculed the idea of a hereditary substance, even while biologists outside the Soviet bloc were closing in on its identity. He also attacked mainstream biologists for their crossbreeding of fruit flies, calling them “fly lovers and people haters”. And they were metaphysical idealists because they believe in things that don’t exist — genes.

  • lpetrich

    And Joseph Stalin himself? He brought back the Russian Orthodox Church to rally his troops after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. And he not only was unwilling to believe that the Nazis were preparing it, he allegedly had a nervous breakdown when it happened.

    He was very foolish to trust Adolf Hitler, given the German dictator’s history of treachery and backstabbing. In 1933, he got into power as part of a coalition with more mainstream German conservative parties, who thought that they could handle him. But the Reichstag fire happened, and Hitler demanded extraordinary powers for fighting the Communist menace. He got what he wanted, and his partners eventually disbanded themselves. He also ordered “The Night of the Long Knives”, a purge of the leadership of the S.A. “Brown Shirts”, which had faithfully supported him. Including the execution of its head and his close friend, Ernst Roehm. Hitler did not want a power base that he did not control.

    And in the mid-1930′s, Hitler announced an “Anti-Comintern Pact” with Mussolini and Tojo, and supported Franco’s Fascists and monarchists against the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. The Soviet Union had supported one faction of the Republicans, which turned on other factions for not following Moacow’s party line.

    The infamous appeasement at Munich irked Stalin because the Soviet Union had not been included in that peace deal, it is as if Britain and France though it OK for the Nazis to attack the Soviet Union. Never mind that it was followed by Hitler’s takeover of much of the rest of Czechoslovakia.

    So when Hitler offered a nonaggression pact with him, he was suckered in. And he trusted Hitler enough to not try to conquer Germany, even as Hitler sent most of his troops westward against Britain and France.

  • lpetrich

    And before Communism, atheism-bashers were pointing to the evils of the French Revolution and its Reign of Terror as evidence of the depravity that comes from rejecting religion. That revolution was not all atheist, of course, but it was rather vehemently anticlerical. Maximilien Robespierre, who masterminded the Terror, had supposedly declared:

    Atheism is aristocratic; the idea of a great Being that watches over oppressed innocence and punishes triumphant crime is an idea of the people.

    After several thousand guillotinings of supposed troublemakers, Robespierre’s colleagues started to fear that they might join his victims, so they found him guilty of some trumped-up charges and guillotined him.


    That said, I think that suppression of religion is a feature of Communism that might legitimately be associated with their atheism. If one believes the religion business to be the moral equivalent of drug addiction, and even something invented by the capitalists and imperialists to keep their underlings under their thumbs, then why not get rid of it?

  • Tommykey

    Were the communists really atheists, or just anti-organized religion? The various communist parties did not want any rival organizations to whom the people might give their loyalty, only the party.

  • Christopher

    Come to think of it, Communism (in practice)is a religion of its own: it holds that the will of the state is supreme in all matters, that the goal of the individual is the service of the collective and that the state’s word in unquestionalbe by anyone.

    Does this sound like the church to you?

  • KC

    Very nice article. I’m often struck by how blind they (American Christians) are to the faith that was/is involved with Communism. It makes me think they’re either being intentionally obtuse or are merely repeating what they learned via wackjobs like these people.

  • Archi Medez

    Nice work, Ebonmuse, very well written. This claim about alleged atheist atrocities is a common myth that needed to be addressed.

    Atheists don’t have an atheist doctrine that tells them to kill or subjugate religious believers; yet believers such as Christians and Muslims do have doctrines which tell them to kill non-believers for the sin-crime of disbelief. And while atheists have no problem denouncing the actions of atheists such as Stalin and Mao, most Christians and Muslims seem to be unable or unwilling to denounce those morally objectionable elements of their scriptures (e.g., instructions to kill apostates, blasphemers, homosexuals, etc.).

  • Paleoguy

    Thanks for the article. I am constantly hearing from a relative that as an atheist I of course am a communist and so a mass murderer and I worship man as a god all regardless of what I say I believe. It’s very frustrating.

    Scary looking website KC. It looks as if my relative took their courses.

  • lpetrich

    I would not go so far as to call Communism a religion in a strict sense; its metaphysics was more-or-less naturalist. But Communism has quasi-religious elements, like the personality cults of its leaders.

    Consider this Hymn to Stalin:

    O great Stalin, O leader of the peoples,
    Thou who broughtest man to birth.
    Thou who fructifies the earth,
    Thou who restorest to centuries,
    Thou who makest bloom the spring,
    Thou who makest vibrate the musical chords…
    Thou, splendour of my spring, O thou,
    Sun reflected by millions of hearts.

    And the hero-worship of Mao Zedong and North Korea’s two Kims. Complete with a miraculous birth (from Wikipedia):

    Kim Jong-il’s official biography also holds that his birth at Mount Paektu was foretold by a swallow, and that his birth was heralded by the appearance of a double rainbow over the mountain and a new star in the heavens.


    It’s also possible to be an atheist and to believe in non-naturalist metaphysics. Philosophical Buddhism and Taoism seem like that to me, but I’m not familiar enough with them to be able to tell for sure.

  • Alex Weaver

    As I understand it, Marxist theory has something of a fatalistic slant, regarding the triumph of the proletariat as inevitable or something to this effect and seeing purpose and direction in history as a whole. They don’t refer to a god but seem to have the idea of a grand plan unfolding through history…

  • lpetrich

    Yes, Marxism does have something of that quality. Marxists claim that they have discovered laws of historical development that will someday result in the punishment of the wicked (the capitalist class) and the triumph of the virtuous (the working class). “Get onto the steamroller of history before it comes and flattens you!”

    Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy has noted this correspondence between Marxist and Xian concepts:

    Yahweh = Dialectical Materialism
    The Messiah = Marx
    The Elect = The Proletariat
    The Church = The Communist Party
    The Second Coming = The Revolution
    Hell = The Punishment of the Capitalists
    The Millennium = The Communist Commonwealth

    Not surprisingly, Marxists have their own apologetics, like claiming that Marxist theory is a method and not a body of knowledge.


    After genetics, what other scientific disciplines might have been next to fall? Nuclear physicists successfully fought to keep their discipline from being Lysenkoized by certain Marxist ideologues who insisted that quantum mechanics is un-Marxist. It certainly departs from a billiard-ball conception of elementary particles, and it involves effects that go contrary to macroscopic-physics intuitions.

    A telling point about Marxist theory was how Soviet scientists had worked and what their theorizing was like — it was just like what Western scientists do with no Marxist dialectics in sight. I remember reading a book by some Soviet scientist on Quantum Electrodynamics (the quantum theory of electromagnetism). It looked almost exactly like what a non-Soviet scientist might write, except for a small section on Lenin and the “infinite extensibility of the electron”, whatever that is.


    Andrei Sakharov also proposed something else very notable: an explanation for the Universe’s matter content, described in more detail in: Baryogenesis.

  • Ebonmuse

    In Billions and Billions, Carl Sagan reprints an essay called “The Common Enemy” that was published in 1988 both in the United States, in Parade magazine, and in the Soviet periodical Ogonyok. After reprinting the essay, he lists the changes that were made to it by Soviet censors. One in particular was the deletion of the phrase “Nothing is promised” (regarding a peaceful resolution to the Cold War) because, as Sagan explains it, “It is one of the self-congratulatory but unscientific tenets of orthodox Marxism that the ultimate triumph of Communism is foreordained by unseen historical forces.”

  • schemanista

    I always like to point out that the Serbian atrocities were carried out by “orthodox” Christians. Likewise, at the time of the genocide, Rwanda was the most Christianized nation in Africa.

  • J


    Very nice article. I’m often struck by how blind they (American Christians) are to the faith that was/is involved with Communism.

    Yes. A lot of supposedly “thoughtful” or “liberal” religionists–and Pope Benedict, especially–claim that equal danger lies in pure faith or pure reason. They identify pure faith with Crusades, Inquisitions, and Jihads. So far so good, right? But then they identify pure reason with communism and fascism. It’s an astonishingly blithe assertion to make, ignoring the massively “un-reasonable” nature of totalitarian systems. You wouldn’t even need to read entire anti-communist books to know that; just 50-100 pages or so of Animal Farm, Gulag Archipelago or Dr. Zhivago would teach that to you: That totalitarian systems can be just as loopy–hilarious really, if they weren’t so deadly–as any convential mythological system.

    It’s probably the laziest thing in the world to quote Sam Harris on a thread or blog like this but here goes anyway, “Communism or fascism are NOT what happens when people become too reasonable.”

  • J

    Hmm, that’s something else: Everyone remembers Moses the crow from Animal Farm, right? Proof–in a literary context, anyway–that religion and totalitarianism can and do often coexist and even profit from each other.

  • lpetrich

    A further problem is a common association of atheism with opposition to religion. Although that is often the case, it need not be.

    One can be an atheist while believing that most other people ought to believe in some religion that one considers false. Something like Plato’s Royal Lie.