In the first years of the 21st century, momentous events occurring around the world once more made it clear that religious belief can lead to vast and terrible evils. These atrocities scarcely need me to recount them: the smoke of the burning Twin Towers, the vicious sectarian bloodletting that has burst out along religious lines in Iraq, the barbaric and regressive human-rights violations of authoritarian theocracies around the world, the ongoing (though largely unreported) campaign of religiously motivated terrorism toward family-planning clinics, the continuing vicious discrimination and persecution waged against gays and other minorities, the opposition to personal liberty in all its forms, the apocalypse fanatics who cheer the end of the world and actively fight against peace efforts in the Middle East and elsewhere, and many more tragic examples. Plainly, if humanity was less religious, many of these evils would have been lessened or prevented entirely.
And yet, there are some who would assert that atheism, if widely adopted, would lead to even worse outcomes. The defenders of religion never tire of bringing up the communist regimes of the 20th century – Joseph Stalin’s Sovet Union, Mao Zedong’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and others – and the dreadful crimes of which they were guilty: murderous mass purges, harsh treatment of dissenters, widespread violation of human rights, and the deaths of innocent millions. Religious apologists inevitably blame these crimes on the official atheism of Marxist regimes, arguing that the communists’ lack of belief in God severed the moral restraints that hold us all together and directly resulted in the devaluation of human life and mass bloodshed that followed. The argument concludes that for all its faults, only belief in God can provide a reason for us to treat each other with dignity, and that if atheism were ever to become widespread, more crimes like those of the communist countries would be the certain result.
So that there can be no mistake, I will state that I deplore the crimes of communist regimes as much as any reasonable person does. In this essay, I will not attempt to downplay or excuse them. But, as I will hope to show, it is not atheism that bears the blame for them. However misguided or evil the communists’ actions were, they do not reflect on today’s nonbelievers, nor do they offer any evidence of what would happen if the humanistic atheism I and others advocate were to come to prominence.
Without a doubt, the crimes of professed communist regimes were terrible. But it is important not to lose sight of what caused them. This is the first major misconception: that the communists attempted to understand the world through reason and science rather than faith, and that this was the error that caused the crimes they committed. Communism was categorically not a reason- or evidence-based view of the world. Quite the contrary, it was a dogmatic, anti-rational ideology every bit the equal of fundamentalist religion, where certain propositions were taken on faith and were not allowed to be debated or questioned. Although the communists congratulated themselves for their liberation from superstitious thinking, in reality they had not escaped dogma; they had merely transferred their dogmatic beliefs from the tenets of religion to an equally rigid and inflexible set of political beliefs.
One of the best examples of this is the Soviet approach to agriculture. During the 1930s, an ideologue named Trofim Lysenko, who knew next to nothing about science but did know the right Marxist code words, convinced Stalin and the Soviet government that the newly discovered science of genetics (or as Lysenko called it, “Mendelism-Weissmanism-Morganism“) was “bourgeois” and had to be rejected because it contradicted Marxist ideology. Lysenko’s own views on plant breeding were distinctly Lamarckian, advocating the inheritance of acquired characteristics, along with a generous helping of sheer crackpottery and other miscellaneous nonsense. Despite Lysenko’s boasts about how his methods could produce extra harvests each year, Lysenkoism was an utter failure in practice; but because it was held to be in accord with communist principles of dialectical materialism, it was made an official dogma of the USSR, and criticism of it was not permitted. Genuine Soviet scientists who criticized Lysenkoism, such as the great biologist Nikolai Vavilov, were publicly defamed, fired, forbidden to do research, and in some cases even imprisoned or killed. Vavilov, in particular, was sent to a Siberian gulag for his opposition to Lysenko and died in prison. The result of all this was decreased agricultural production, mass famine, possibly thousands of deaths from starvation, and a Russian state that to this day severely lags the West in genetic research.
Other communist regimes shared this irrational ideology and deep hostility toward intellectualism. Another example was the Cultural Revolution of communist China, an anarchic series of purges organized and carried out by the country’s then leader, Mao Zedong. As Encarta says about this period, “Scientists and other intellectuals were singled out for special victimization; hundreds of thousands were beaten, robbed, publicly humiliated, and condemned to menial labor on farms far from their home.” For an almost ten-year period, the country’s educational system was shut down almost completely. Pol Pot’s genocidal and bloodthirsty Khmer Rouge regime went even farther than China, specifically targeting for extermination doctors, teachers, professionals – anyone who was suspected of being an intellectual or having an education, even going so far as to attack people with eyeglasses.
Cases like these show that the communists’ error was not atheism, but rather a fierce and rigid adherence to their own beliefs, coupled with a murderous hostility toward those who would question or doubt them. Such irrational elevation of dogma over free thought and human life is always destructive, no matter the specific principles being held dogmatically. Many apologetic arguments heard on this topic are attacks on the straw-man claim that atheism makes people intrinsically better than theists, or incapable of committing such crimes. But no atheist I am aware of has ever claimed this. Indeed, our very point is that morality is not causally linked to religious belief in any reliable way. There are good theists and bad theists, good atheists and bad atheists. The mere fact of whether a person believes in God says nothing, one way or the other, about how they treat others. Instead, the key question is what moral code that person follows and whether it emphasizes compassion and individual liberty over the necessity of making everyone conform to a certain rigid set of rules, or vice versa.
Certainly, atheists are capable of committing evil deeds. After all, we are human beings too, and capable of all the same acts that other people are capable of. Nothing about the rejection of religious belief per se forces a person to adhere to any specific moral code. If the apologists of religion want an admission that atheists are capable of making mistakes, being irrational and doing wrong just like anyone else, they have it. But that by itself proves nothing.
The more crucial question is whether atheism causes or naturally leads to evil acts such as those of the communist regimes, and this is the second major misconception. If it were true that atheism had an inherent tendency to produce despotic, violent autocracies, that would be a strong practical reason to reject it. But the evidence does not show any such thing to be the case.
The communist leaders who were guilty of atrocities did not kill because they were atheists, because they wanted to make people stop believing in God. On the contrary, their goal was the acquisition of power over society, and they fought against religion primarily because they believed it was a rival in that quest. But anyone who opposed the communists’ goals could come into their crosshairs. These regimes were not reluctant to punish and persecute atheists, either, when those atheists were the ones opposing them.
One example of this was the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. An atheist since the age of 14 (according to this BBC article), Sakharov was one of the USSR’s youngest and most brilliant nuclear physicists, and played a decisive role in the Soviet Union’s successful development of nuclear weapons technology, for which he was showered with prestige and awards by his government. While working on this project, he believed it was an essential way to secure world peace through the assurance of arms-race parity and mutually assured destruction. But later in life, he became disillusioned with the arbitrary cruelty and militarism of his government, and in defiance of government censorship, published eloquent pleas for human rights and the abolition of nuclear testing. For these offenses, this one-time national hero of the Soviet state became a pariah: fired from his job, stripped of his privileges, denounced and slandered by government mouthpieces, and eventually arrested and condemned to years of exile and house arrest. Only with the ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev was this by now world-famous, and Nobel Peace Prize-winning, spokesman for human rights released and allowed to speak freely at last.
Conversely, some of the most infamous communist leaders, despite their anti-religion diatribes, showed little hesitance to ally with religious leaders who were willing to support their goals. A timely January 2007 article from Reuters News, Polish archbishop resigns in spying row, concerns the sudden resignation of the newly appointed Catholic Archbishop of Warsaw, Stanislaw Wielgus, after admitting he assisted Poland’s former communist government in spying on its enemies. Dozens of other clergy members have also been unmasked as communist collaborators, possibly as many as 10 or 15 percent among the nations of the Warsaw Pact.
Stories such as those of Sakharov and Wielgus show that communism was first and foremost a political system. Its main goal was not to promote a certain set of beliefs or ideologies, but to gain power for itself. The communists were willing to work with anyone who supported that goal and to attack and persecute anyone who opposed it, regardless of that person’s religious beliefs. It was this lust for power, not atheism, that was the motivating factor in the atrocities the communists committed.
Unlike many religious texts, which contain specific injunctions to dominate or do violence to nonbelievers, atheism by itself never causes people to become murderous. Indeed, how could it? Atheists have no holy book, no sacred text directing their actions. On the contrary, atheism only causes harm when conjoined with some other dogmatic ideology that contains such instructions. At best, these historical lessons could show that atheists, just like theists, are vulnerable to corruption when given absolute power (which, as the saying goes, corrupts absolutely). But, again, I know of no rational person who disputes that.
The desire of some apologists to tar all atheists with the brush of communism looks especially ridiculous when one perceives the true diversity of atheist thought. There are atheists occupying every position on the political spectrum, from the socialist groups on the left to the libertarian atheists on the right, such as the followers of Ayn Rand, who advocate a capitalist conception of the free market. The thinking of each of these groups would be anathema to the other, and yet they are both atheists. It would be ludicrous to say that the crimes of one group implicate the other when the two are, in every way except for their nontheism, diametric opposites.
A similar principle holds true in my case and in that of many other prominent atheists and atheist organizations. The arguments against communism would be valid attacks on me if I subscribed to the same system and believed the same things as the communists. But I do not.
I am not a communist, but a humanist. The two are as different as night and day. Whereas communism worships collectivism, conformity and the state, humanism places supreme value on individual liberty and the intrinsic dignity and worth of every human being. While I recognize the importance and value of living together with others in a harmonious community, I believe even more strongly that every individual must ultimately be free to chart their own course through life, and that the decision to participate in a community must always be a truly voluntary choice. As a humanist, I also believe in the desirability of a meritocratic society, where people are rewarded commensurate with their skills, their talents, and their desire to apply these and work toward achieving their goals. Finally, I believe in the tremendous importance of free speech and intellectual freedom, where people have the right to educate themselves, to pursue knowledge, and to ask whatever questions they wish, even when those questions are uncomfortable or damaging to those in power. Communism denies all these principles, and so I reject it wholeheartedly.
It is a telling fact that religious apologists who argue against atheism refuse to address the views I and others actually believe and advocate, and instead insist on judging us based on other people’s views, views which we do not support in any way. Such tactics are an admission that the actual views we hold cannot be so easily refuted, and so they must argue by unfairly attempting to link us with positions that they can more easily attack.
Saying that humanists and communists are alike because both groups are atheists makes about as much sense as blaming Christians for the crimes of Islamic terrorists because both groups believe in God. In both cases, the one thing that these groups have in common hardly suffices to establish a direct sharing of responsibility for the crimes of one of them.
However, even when religious groups disavow the evils of their past, it is not unfair to point out that they still believe in and defend books that contain explicit endorsement of such violence. Nor is it unfair to point out when religious groups that no longer practice violence nevertheless still hold to the dogmatic rejection of dissent that has been the seed of tyranny so many times in the past. But neither of these parallels hold true in the case of yesterday’s communists and today’s humanist atheists.