Comment roundup bonus edition: Stalin.

On my post about possible forthcoming laws in Russia with three-year prison terms for offending people’s religious sensibilities, someone left this comment.

//You say “atheists”, plural, as if their atheism had shit to do with the Gulags. It didn’t.//

You’re delusional.

Am I now?

A cursory examination of Russian history will confirm that Stalin was a paranoid who killed millions to consolidate his power.  Totalitarianism, not atheism, was the driving force or causal link.  Those who claim he was killing because of atheism conveniently ignore facts that show their claim to be bogus.

One of the facts they ignore is that he killed lots of different folks, not just Christians.  This makes no sense if atheism is the causal link, but perfect sense if potential political foes is the reason.  He killed factions within his own Communist party  (anyone not unquestioningly loyal to him, and many hundreds of thousands who were loyal to him, had to be “weeded out”).  He killed Finns, Karelians, Ukrainians, 35,000 military officers shot or imprisoned, almost all of the Bolsheviks  who had played prominent roles during the Russian Revolution of 1917, thousands of writers, intellectuals, and artists, 141 American Communists, at least 436,000 people were sentenced to death by NKVD troikas as part of the Kulak (relatively affluent peasants, regardless of religion) operation, and so on.

One of the numbers you’ll often hear theists regurgitate is the 7 million Ukrainians who died in Stalin’s famine.  Most of the time they’ll even say Stalin murdered 7 million Christians, not 7 million Ukranians.  That kind of misleading argument can only be found with a position that must mislead in order to be accepted.  The truth of the matter is that the famine was engineered to break the will of the Ukrainians politically and as a source of revolt, not to wipe out whatever Christians happened to be Ukrainian.

Something those using atheism as an excuse are typically unaware of is that the Orthodox Church in Russia was heavily involved in the politics of the time.  Anyone who doesn’t recognize the power of the church in politics has only to glance at all of the anti-gay legislation in this country fomented from the pulpit.  Quite simply, the Russian Orthodox Church backed the wrong horse politically and suffered political consequences for it.  Stalin didn’t go after them because they were Christians, he went after them because they were a political player.  Theists want to pretend that all the various elements of communist totalitarianism were irrelevant to what happened, which is utter nonsense.

Another conveniently ignored fact is that between 1945 and 1953 (and extending to 1959 under policies put into place by Stalin), the official organization of the church was greatly expanded, “although individual members of the clergy were occasionally arrested and exiled. The number of open churches went from about 500 to  25,000. By 1957 about 22,000 Russian Orthodox churches had become active.”

After Nazi Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union  in 1941, Joseph Stalin revived the Russian Orthodox Church. On September 4, 1943, Metropolitans Sergius, Alexy and Nikolay  had a meeting with Stalin and received a permission to convene a council on September 8, 1943, which elected Sergius Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. This is considered by some violation of the XXX Apostolic canon, as no church hierarchy could be consecrated by secular authorities.  A new patriarch was elected, theological schools were opened, and thousands of churches began to function. The Moscow Theological Academy Seminary, which had been closed since 1918, was re-opened.

What this shows is that religion was a political football for Stalin.  If atheism, and not totalitarianism, were the driving force, why ever would he have revived the church from 500 units to 22,000 units?  How can you possibly explain this if atheism were the driving force behind any of his purges?

In Stalin’s case, he was clearly driven by the acquisition of political power.  He was not driven by a lack of belief in god, a lack of belief in leprechauns, the fact that he had a mustache or any other quality.  This is obvious.  Compare him to a monster like Torquemada, who stated explicitly why non-Christians must die and who only killed non-Christians.  It is plain to see how Torquemada’s religious beliefs were the driving force for his bloodshed.  Can you see the difference?

Even if I concede Stalin’s atheism, not all atheists are particularly reasonable.  This is why Stalin’s barbarism is universally condemned by atheists and religious people of sane moral standards alike (and was condemned by those who shared his conclusions about god at the time, which is another way Stalin’s case is different from Torquemada’s).  There is no atheist creed Stalin was referencing to motivate him since no such creed exists and could not exist, because nobody builds creeds upon what they don’t believe – otherwise you could just as soon ascribe Stalin’s barbarism to his disbelief in unicorns.

Atheism entails one truth claim: god doesn’t exist.  That’s it.  Compare that to religion in which, once you accept the founding premise, many truth claims follow.  Once you accept that god exists and that he wrote a book (the bible) dictating his will to mankind, can anybody genuinely wonder how that fact can make, say, opposition to homosexual equality seem like a logical conclusion?

Essentially it boils down to this: reason is what’s important.  Were Stalin’s political and moral ideas reasonable?  No, not at all.  Is the idea that a Canaanite Jew rose from the dead reasonable?  No, not at all.  Irrationality is dangerous and embarrassing, and we should criticize it fiercely.  If you can agree to the very basic premise that irrationality was required for what Stalin (an atheist) did or for what Hitler (a Catholic) did, then you should realize irrationality for the poison that it is and do everything in your power to carve it out of your own life.  If you think believing that a guy 2,000 years ago walked on water is the best way to meet this responsibility, it is you who is delusional, not me.

Moral of the story: do fucking research before shooting off at the mouth!  Will that make you right every time?  No.  But it will certainly help and, when you are wrong, you can change your mind and be happy to do so because reason and fact, not your current conclusions, are what’s important to you.  If believers took even fifteen fucking minutes to honestly ask themselves “Hrm, Stalin was an atheist, but did he really kill people because he was an atheist?” and went on Wikipedia to find out, we would not even need to be having this conversation.

If you cherish your beliefs, treat them like you think they’re important!  Make them the product of research and introspection, not a substitute for them.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Mark

    Great stuff but I would take issue with one line…

    “Atheism entails one truth claim: God doesn’t exist.”

    This is not necessarily true. Technically the only truth claim atheism makes that applies to all atheists would be something like – “There is no evidence that theism is true” or “Theists have not met their burden of proof”. “God doesn’t exist” is, as you point out, a truth claim and anyone making that claim would be required to provide evidence for that claim. Now we can get into the whole absence of evidence is evidence of absence (I agree with you by the way) but really to assert flat out that no god exists is essentially an unsupportable claim and the two I mentioned are more intellectually honest given the current state of play. I’m probably nitpicking but thought I should point it out.

    • Adam

      I would disagree because of the word “claim”. Religious people claim that their god exists, and that its truth. Atheists claim god doesnt exist. anything between these 2 claims would more often be in the agnostic/gnostic categories. Neither side can technically prove the other wrong, but science backs up one while mythology backs up the other, and depending where your “faith” lies will usually land you closer to one or the other.

      • Mark

        Atheism is not the opposite of theism. Atheism is the null hypothesis.

    • Midori

      If people who believe in leprechauns have not met their burden of proof, we just say “leprechauns don’t exist.” I really don’t see any reason we shouldn’t do the same when we’re talking about gods rather than leprechauns.

  • MountainTiger

    Here I was thinking you would go the simpler route of pointing out that Stalin, like the commenters bringing him up on that post, was quite fond of censorship. Your way is good too, though.

  • AKAHorace

    Totalitarians persecute religion, not because they are atheists, but because they want to remove any other source of power or organization in society. Tolerance of other sources of power such as religion, the family, tribes, and traditional customs is a symptom of an open society. Stalin may have been right about religion, but it would have been much better for Russia if it had remained under the rule of priest ridden Tsars.

    This is why I am a bit suspicious when school boards try to push “Heather has two mommies” literature in the classroom or atheists insist on banning religious education. Intolerance of falsehood can be a symptom of worse things to come.

    • John-Henry Beck

      I’m a little puzzled about AKAHorace’s second paragraph there.
      Isn’t the idea of “Heather Has Two Mommies” about breaking the religious stranglehold declaring who is a real and acceptable family, to encourage understanding of diversity?
      Banning religious education sounds bad on the surface, but I’m not really clear what’s meant there either. Again, what I see atheists doing (in the U.S.) is stopping the religious from shoving their religious education on to students at public schools.
      The idea that intolerance of falsehood is a thing to be feared, a sign of totalitarianism more than blatant use of falsehood, seems rather strange to me. It sounds an awful lot like AKAHorace thinks telling theists they can’t impose their religion with the tools of government is somehow a sign of Stalinistic oppression on the way – rather than all the oppressive stuff the theists do.

      • AKAHorace

        I think that over the last 200 years there has been a tendency to place all power in the hands of the legeslative and judiciary system and destroy traditional centres of power, the family, clan, tribe, monarchy, church and custom. Totalitarianism is an extreme form of this.

        This has got us out of the middle ages (good) but it also means that if you control the state you have complete power in a way that earlier governments never had. Totalistarianism is extreme modernization. It also means that laws are now fully applied and there is an attitude that things are either legal or illegal with no middle ground. Communities have lost the power to shame those who behave badly but have done nothing technically illegal.

        It also makes for problems when we deal with other cultures which still have a strong sense of tradition. An example is after the Americans invaded Afghanistan the Afghans wanted their king back. The Americans refused this and imposed democracy on them. The long term results of this may not be good.

        Tolerance of error can be a good thing, as the

        • MikeTheInfidel

          “I think that over the last 200 years there has been a tendency to place all power in the hands of the legeslative and judiciary system and destroy traditional centres of power, the family, clan, tribe, monarchy, church and custom. Totalitarianism is an extreme form of this.”

          So basically your complaint is with the American system of creating laws, and your focus (from your first post) is on the idea that gay people can get married. Somehow this is a sign of creeping totalitarianism to you.

          What utter nonsense.

          • AKAHorace


            I am glad that gays can get married; I would not want the schools system to take a side on the issue one way or another though. A minimal amount of state interference for the good, as once a precedent is set you do not know where it will end.

        • Droopy

          I disagree with a great deal of what you are saying.
          1) Pushing “two mommies” literature in school indicates a support of gay marriage. Technically, it does not. Schools are for education. Teaching kids that different kinds of families exist is simply informing them of facts. Furthermore, I think public school ought to advocate on behalf of equal rights for all citizens, but that’s just my opinion.
          2) Atheists are banning religious education. They are only banning religious education in public institutions. There are still plenty of religious schools that are being left alone.
          3) “there has been a tendency to …destroy traditional centres of power, the family, clan, tribe, monarchy, church and custom.”. The clan, tribe, monarchy, church and custom can be destroyed for all I care. Those centers of power tend to encourage irrational thinking and are very closely associated with prejudice, persecution and war throughout history. I see no evidence to suggest anyone is trying to destroy families.
          4) “Communities have lost the power to shame those who behave badly but have done nothing technically illegal.” As long as people can speak they can still shame and shun those who have done wrong. They don’t need an institution to provide this opportunity.

  • AKAHorace

    any regime that sets out to eliminate errror can only do so by extensive social control. This does not always end well.

  • Drakk

    I’ll just add:

    I, and I’m guessing a lot of the commentariat here, are both atheists and rationalists, and the latter before the former. By which I mean I am atheist only because religious theories are not borne out by evidence, and I would abandon atheism if evidence mounted enough to make it untenable.

    Stalin was…not. To say the least. The man has common ground with certain Christians in that he himself didn’t believe in Darwinian inheritance (look up Trofim Lysenko) considering it to be unSoviet. Lysenko believed that the only thing that mattered in an organism’s growth was its social environment. Not only is this laughably untrue even for humans, Lysenko extended it (on no factual basis at all) to plants. Somehow the Russian farmers’ crop yields going to all hell didn’t convince Stalin that maybe Lysenko was a crackpot. Far from it, he ordered those teaching Darwinian inheritance theories to be executed.

    Stalin didn’t believe in quantum mechanics or relativity either and only allowed it because he was afraid that forbidding their teaching would weaken the Soviet nuclear weapons programme. That, and he found physics’ utter agnosticism on human nature to be nice and Marxist. Probably worth mentioning that despite the Soviet scientists achieving the likes of Tsar Bomba using relativistic calculations, Stalin still wasn’t convinced, simply because relativity and QM defied “common sense” and were too “bourgeoisie”.

    Ultimately I’ll go so far as to say Stalin’s mentality has more in common with the kind of modern Christian who, when presented with scientific evidence contradicting the bible, stuffs their fingers in their ears and shouts “LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU IT’S NOT TRUE” than the typical atheist who (usually) values reason and critical thought.

    • AKAHorace

      Sorry for the delay posting here, I was busy burning a witch with my neighbours. Nothing like it to bring the community together.

      Anyway, I have seen a lot of long, pointless discussions about whether Hitler was a christian or if Stalin was really an atheist. I don’t think that this is important in itself. What matters is that totalitarianism seems to be related to modernizing. When you get rid of religion people have a way of finding alternative beliefs that are more harmful even if they are more true. The important question is were Mao/Stalin/Hitler/Pol Pot are one off events that happened during the early stages of modernization or will we see the likes of them again.

      You can argue that the world is too interconected and people are too well informed for this to happen again. On the other hand, think of the resources for repression that a modern well organized dictatorship has now. Imagine what Stalin could have done with CCTV coverage of all of the Soviet Union’s major cities, surveillance drones in the country side, along with facial recognition software. Think of all of the stories of trouble makers escaping across borders as the border guards did not have access to a single centralized database. There has been some fascinating work done in neuropsychology which means that we will soon be able to determine when anyone is lying.

      If we ever return to totalitarianism, we could end up with a very stable and very unfree situation.

  • mildlymagnificent

    What matters is that totalitarianism seems to be related to modernizing.

    Only if you equate utopianism with modernity. I realise that’s what a lot of people did last century, but the two are not the same thing nor even equivalent. From the USSR to Bauhaus/Le Corbusier ‘machines for living’ to kibbutzim to hippie communes, all claimed a new and better way for people to live where ‘modern’, logical, social mechanisms would ensure development of people whose thinking and behaviour were ‘freed’ from old and outdated family and social restrictions.

    These were just totalitarian interference in individual and family preferences in not very new clothes with a bit of stainless steel polish on the buttons.

  • Afsac

    Stalin died in ’53. You need to change the dates in the article. That’s part of why the Orthodox Church expanded.

  • Afsac

    Let’s not forget, also, that Communism in its Soviet form was nothing short of religious, more so at the internatoinal level, thanks to propaganda, but certainly for many Russians as well. Stalin had procured himself a god-like status, and he acknowledged that Russians, having leaped from Tsarism to socialism, would embrace an emperor figure readily. Moreover, for people in the West Communism became a replacement for traditional religious beliefs: it had it’s own book (the Manifesto) its prophet (Marx) and its embodied messengers in the form of Stalin and Mao who ensured orthodoxy. It also managed to bring together a great deal of people in many countries who shared their faith in an apparently successful form of popular revolution. This is why in Europe and Latin America many people were so ready to embrace Communism under Soviet leadership even as the Great Purge, the Ukranian famine and deportation of children were going on (although of course in the West few people knew about these, and those adherents who learned of them disregarded them as anti-communist sentiment). These points help show that Soviet Communism is a bad example of atheism, because it really was (and continues to be) just another religion. 

    Religious fervor, instituted irrationally at a young age, practiced fanatically by large groups of people (on whom the doctrine has been imposed by autoritarian or totalitarian means), and naturally unable to accept dissent or diversity of creed, creates a huge void when suddenly the mechanism of imposition is lifted. Individuals and society, unable to cope reationally with the vacuum (of political and moral leadership) will easily fall prey to a new system that might be worse than the previous one. But to say that this is good reason to leave absolutist religious beliefs and institutions intact (because of their paternalistic role) is to miss the many social evils caused by the lack of diversity and tolerance. I personally doubt there will be a time when superstition will be totally eradicated (I hope I’m wrong). Also, I’ve met quite a few atheist who act in the same way as religious zealots and hard-core communists (in terms of what must be believed and how fervently), for whom, in effect, atheism has simply replaced a strong religious structure of another sort. This to me is just one more form of irrational behavior, and it is not a heathy path to freeing the mind and collective consciousness from dogmatic belief.