I’ve written several posts in response to version 2 of the Stalin Argument. Version 1 is often stated this way: “Don’t talk to me about Christian excesses. Look at the deaths from atheist regimes in the twentieth century! Stalin alone is responsible for millions of deaths.”
John Mark Reynolds has given this a fun new V2.0 twist by looking forward to what atheists might do when society’s back is turned. Here’s my paraphrase: “While atheists as individuals might be nice enough, they’ve invariably created murderous regimes when given the chance. They can’t be trusted with power!”
Reynolds’ post has given me a chance to respond to the popular Stalin Argument. I’ll conclude my critique of his latest (read part 1).
Is religion ever part of the problem?
Reynolds assures us that anti-theists (atheists who “actively dislike and work against religion”) can’t be trusted with power, while Christians are no problem.
The universal problem has not been official state religion, but official state irreligion.
Nope. Official state religion has indeed been a problem.
In response to my previous post on Reynolds’ claims, some commenters were quick to point out incidents where religion has much to apologize for. Some of these examples are small and some are huge. In some, religion was the driving force, while others simply highlight atrocities done by religious people who should’ve known better.
- Christian: Hutu genocide of Tutsi in Rwanda, up to 1 million dead
- Catholic: Leopold of Belgium ran the Congo Free State as his personal plantation, killing up to 15 million
- Muslim: Armenian genocide, up to 2 million
- Christian: witch burning (mostly in the Holy Roman Empire), about 35,000
- Shinto/Buddhist: Japanese atrocities against civilians in Korea and China
- Christian: European settlers to Australia, South Africa, and the Americas killed indigenous people
- Catholic: extermination of Cathars in France
- Hindu: Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka
- Christian: pogroms against Jews and the Holocaust, for which Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic writings must take some blame
- The Taiping Rebellion in China killed 20+ million in the mid-1800s (the Taipings wanted to convert China to their version of Christianity)
- Catholics vs. Protestants: French Wars of Religion in the late 1500s killed up to 4 million
- Catholics vs. Protestants: the Thirty Years’ War in the early 1600s killed up to two percent of the world’s population. By contrast, if we say that Stalin was responsible for 10 million deaths, that would be just 0.4 percent of the world population of 1950.
- Catholic vs. Muslim: the Crusades also killed up to two percent of the world’s population
- The Nazi Holocaust of Jews was driven by German anti-Semitism encouraged by Luther
- And more
Reynolds would respond to this list by saying that he never claimed that Christians were perfect. But if we agree that Christian moral principles can be subordinated by an unethical agenda (land grab, religious hysteria, racism or tribalism, or whatever), then acknowledge that atheism can also be hijacked in the same way.
Others respond with elaborate forms of the tu quoque fallacy: Christians have done it too. Well, so we have, but we have also not done it which puts us well ahead of anti-theists in the use of power.
Make it an apples-to-apples comparison. Bring out the atheist regimes that were not dictatorships.
Can’t do it? Then we’re back to dictatorship as the obvious cause of the problem.
Atheists today are simply living off morality taught by Christianity
As a tiny group in most nations, [atheism] tends to live off the cultural patrimony of the majority (or the historic majority). For example, Western Europe has a larger group of atheists [than in the United States], but the society they live in came of Christian social movements at the end of the Second World War.
Christianity has driven positive social change. A century ago, social change was everywhere in America, and Christians were leaders in women’s suffrage, the treatment of immigrants, prison and asylum reform, temperance and prohibition, racial inequality, child labor and compulsory elementary school education, women’s education, protection of women from workplace exploitation, equal pay for equal work, communism and utopian societies, unions and the labor movement, pure food laws, and more.
Today, Christians make more news by their resistance to social change, but we must give credit where it’s due. Christians have done a lot to improve society. But it’s not like they taught us information found only in their holy books. Each of these social improvements is a rejection of the complementary principle in an Old Testament theocracy. Most of this improvement wasn’t driven by Christianity but by people who simply happened to be Christian.
Atheism vs. secularism
Small, persecuted religious groups have often fled to form new groups. Small religious groups, like the Quakers, develop cohesive beliefs and establish communities. Some of these have been mostly good and some have been mostly bad. Atheism has not managed to do so.
As for his imaginary atheistic society, what does that even mean? “I have no god belief” provides no guidance for how to build a healthy and fair society. It’s not supposed to. By contrast, Christianity has much to say about society and morality, and lots of that is crap.
Atheists and even anti-theists like me don’t want an atheist dictatorship. If there are Western anti-theists chafing at the prohibitions against killing Christians or imposing atheism, I’ve never heard of a single one. A secular government suits them just fine. We’re happy to simply point out the flaws of Christianity in the secular public square.
I am proud of the fact that despite its shortcomings, the United States which has always been overwhelmingly Christian has a decent track record of tolerating atheist dissent.
Thank the founding fathers. America has been tolerant despite Christianity, not because of it. Christians make news in this country when they want to exceed the bounds imposed by the Constitution—injecting religious messages in schools, teaching Creationism in the science classroom, putting up “In God We Trust” in government buildings and Christian displays on public property, praying before government meetings, and otherwise expecting special treatment for their religious beliefs in the state-supported public square.
And what’s “tolerating atheist dissent” supposed to mean? The assumption is that Christianity is the default, and everyone else is a dissenter? Nope—read the Constitution.
It would be comforting if my anti-theist friends would at least admit there is no happy human experience with anti-theist governance.
It would be comforting if my religious friends would at least admit that this dictatorial anti-theism bogeyman is unwanted by both Christians and atheists. No one is calling for a Stalinist dictatorship. The closest we get in America today are tiny voices calling for Dominionism (Christian theocracy) and Sharia law (Muslim theocracy). The status quo in the West, where a secular society rejects both religion and anti-theism in the public square, is the best thing for everyone.
I agree that anti-theism was important to Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. They were dictators! Dictators can’t have the population confused about whom to give allegiance to, so they eliminate Christianity as a competing source of power. Atheism in their hands was a tool, not a goal. Reynolds has claimed otherwise but given us no reason to reject this obvious cause-and-effect relationship.
I want the First Amendment guarantees of speech, religion, press, and assembly defended for you just as strongly as I want them defended for me. If you can’t speak freely, I can’t expect to, either.
The secular government we have in the West today is the best for all. We must govern with reason rather than faith. We have yet to see a society that suffered from an excess of reason. I’m an anti-theist in that I would like to see religion gone from the world and I’m outraged at Christian excesses, but prohibiting religion or persecuting believers isn’t the way to go.
I don’t want religion made illegal. Instead, I want to see society to grow out of its need for religion.
whenever human security
and well-being rises.
— Daniel Dennett
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 5/6/15.)
Image from WikiArt, CC license