Anti-theists are sending Christians to labor camps in China and killing us in North Korea, but there is good news: Anti-theists# in the United States are positive they will not kill Christians if they ever get power and I believe them. There is no evidence that American anti-theists will ever develop a mass movement of anti-theists capable of exercising power. Anti-theists as individuals have had power in the United States and will have power, but there is no reason to think this dangerous.
A few curmudgeons in any nation are good for us.
My piece on the historical record of anti-theists in power apparently caused more concern in the anti-theist community than the recent news that anti-theists in China are stepping up their continuous persecution of the Church. Yet it is important to note what has not been said by American anti-theists: Nobody has denied that every anti-theist atheist# regime in the world has been horrible. Nobody has denied that some places with state churches have been bad and some places with state churches have been pretty good.
We have had socialist states that have been tolerable. We have had Islamic states that have been remarkably tolerant. We had a Christian nation with a state church that let Hume influence a generation. There has not been one anti-theist# state that has not been murderous.
Maybe that is an accident. I hope so, but it doesn’t seem irrational to be concerned.
This is not a complaint about atheism or even anti-theists as individuals. Instead, my piece (and this follow up) is a worry that I wish would be addressed. It is based on the fact that in all human history any anti-theists who have formed a mass political movement and gained power have been that horrific. This is an odd fact and must be explained. Of course, saying anti-theism caused all horrors in any state is wrong. I will be content to say that anti-theism caused only those horrors in states run by anti-theists which the anti-theists said were motivated by anti-theism!
There is not a parallel worry about Christianity. There is presently no nation on earth with a Christian state church that bans atheism or sends atheists to labor camps. Thank God. If one ever comes into being, I promise to spend more time attacking its evil than worrying about Christian critics using it to attack Christianity. After all, killing people is a great deal worse than harming my particular apologetic strategy. We do have such murderous anti-theist states and none where anyone would wish to live.
The universal problem has not been official state religion, but official state irreligion.**
But the focus of anti-theism on this fact generally starts with a complaint about me. I am accused of saying that they (the writers) are about to kill Christians. And yet I have said many times that atheism by itself lacks the content needed to produce any particular agenda. There is no reason to fear any individual atheist just because he or she is an atheist! How absurd!
Just asserting there is no god does not lead to any particular political movement. There are individual atheists of all political stripes.
While atheism is never very large in any population, and has been persecuted, it does not leave and start a new society. It has never created a nation (though as we will see, it has taken them over). Religion is much more creative (for good and bad). 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.
I think this is (probably) because it has an insufficient basis for forming much of a community. Not believing something is not much on which to build a new community! Whatever the eternal fate of an atheist, the small atheist communities in the United States cannot unite amongst themselves, let alone threaten much of anything. I have no fear of organized American atheists or anti-theists. They cannot organize a large enough group to form a movement without bursting into squabbling groups about who are “true atheists!”
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.
Contrary to some critics, though I think atheism false, I do not fear atheism. Atheism worldwide is a shrinking community. In the United States it is growing, but from a tiny base. If 3% of the population becomes 6% that seems like huge growth, but does not demonstrate that it can ever grow to be much more than a small group. Give a child a penny today and a penny tomorrow and she has doubled her money . . . but do not count on her having millions someday based on present rate of growth.
That does not mean atheism is wrong, just that as a tiny group in most nations, it tends to live off the cultural patrimony of the majority (or the historic majority). For example, Western Europe has a larger group of atheists, but the society they live in came of Christian social movements at the end of the Second World War.
Doubt this? Germany has church taxes. Great Britain retains a state church. These “relics” indicate what produced the social system that can welcome atheism.
Western European nations are losing Christian faith but not spirituality or belief in a higher power or life force. Sweden is a spiritual nation with a declining Christian population and a growing Islamic one. It has (for atheism) a decent percentage of atheists, but they live in a national system formed during the Christian period of the nation. After all, Sweden had a robust Christian population within my dad’s memory! We will see what the religious climate is in another one hundred years.
If you are an atheist, there is a form of atheism, anti-theism, that has managed to develop power and promote anti-theist values. My worry is that anti-theism is potent enough to govern and create a culture, but this has never turned out well. Anti-theism is a form of atheism that organizes around stamping out the pernicious influences of religion. This can form a mass movement and get power in a state. It has also sustained power. In fact, in North Korea and China we have two such long enduring states.#
Of course, bad Christian states have existed, but there are also decent ones. The United States is an example of a nation with a massive historic Christian majority with power that chose to tolerate other points of view. We chose not to have a state church though the Christian majority could have imposed one. This worked well for us just as state churches in other places like Great Britain turned out tolerant communities as well.
There is no example of a state with atheists in power as atheists that did not persecute the religious. I hope this is an accident, but suspect it is not.
Perhaps the least amusing response is the “blame the victims” move. Soviet Russia killed millions of Christians, but Soviet Russia was really just a dark form of Christianity. Evidently Mao (not at all Christian or in a Christian society) was also a “dark form” of . . . what? Pol Pot? We know this: anti-theism was an intrinsic part of these regimes. We don’t know one regime with atheism or anti-theism as an intrinsic feature that has not been (or is not) horrific.
We know many places with state churches that are not horrific.
A general response to my piece is that dictatorships are bad and that dictatorships, not anti-theism atheism (from now on just atheism), is the problem. Of course, not all regimes we are discussing were actually dictatorships. China will not allow full rights to theists, but it does not have a dictator but a large anti-theist party. Let’s ignore that for a moment and see the bigger problem with the response.
At least some anti-theists picked their politics to match their anti-theistic worldview. Stalin became an atheist first and then picked a political view to match his anti-theistic atheism. In the case of Stalin, his politics and economic views evolved (to pick one example, he moved from nationalist to internationalist), but his anti-theism picked up in his first year of high school did not. Just as many atheists do not become anti-theists, so many anti-theists have no desire to reach the masses or gain political power. Anti-theism is generally a boutique system that reaches a narrow community. (This smallness does not mean it is wrong, just fairly impotent in a democracy.) Lenin also came to atheism long before he found Marxism. Mao disbelieved in God by 1912 believing he alone was “god.” Mao was long from developing his adult views on economics and politics. This looks like the developmental norm in my reading about anti-theist founders of these societies, but this has been questioned by some critics.
To save footnoting in an overly long post, let us assume all the other anti-theists other than Lenin and Stalin were anti-theists only because some worldview (Marxism) made them this way after they embraced it. (They came to anti-theism only after coming to Marx.) We must then ask: why did none of them for generations get rid of the anti-theism?
It is perfectly possible to be an economic Marxist and a Christian or a Marxist and believe in many other religions. Let’s assume that first theists became Marxists and then Marx made them anti-theists. Marx is anti-theist, but his anti-theism can be teased apart from his social, economic, and political views. Contra Bertrand Russell, Marx was not treated like a sacred text in practice. In fact, Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot and other Marxists heavily modified the historic predictions of Marx (revolution could come to an agrarian state like Russia contra Marx), economic views (NEP and Lenin contra Marx), and other predictions. No such state however experimented by jettisoning the anti-theism. This strongly suggests the anti-theism was an intrinsic motivation for embracing the Marxism.
We should note that anti-theism in such states was a vital part of the societies, not an “extra” for generations. Leaders and policies would come and go, but not the anti-theism. Stalin, in fact, relaxed anti-theism to win World War II, but his heirs kicked it back into gear . . . even though they were otherwise more moderate! Not every evil deed done by officially atheist states was done to theists, but these states spent time and money on atheist textbooks, atheist support materials, and on persecuting the religious. I have actually met people who deny the religious were more persecuted than anyone else! Those interested in the horrific details can start here. Note that in the 1970s there was a revival (!) of anti-theism, unrelated to any threat to the state.
Why do anti-theists who want to start mass movements and influence their states always fall into coercion? I suspect it is because people are naturally religious and anti-theists in power find this fact frustrating. If schools are to be anti-theist (which anti-theists believe is reality), then this will have to be imposed and in fact it was imposed. Religious people object and are then persecuted. Since religious people “deny reality” and hold dangerous or harmful beliefs, anti-theists feel justified in their action. Anti-theists with the power think they are preventing harm to society and children.
I hope I am wrong, but it would be comforting if my anti-theist friends would at least admit there is no happy human experience with anti-theist governance.
This brings us to an important point: Stalin was unique, but not alone. Indeed, Stalin was far worse than the average anti-theist with power. Stalin was a brute, a monster, but Stalin was not the entire Soviet Union or even the parent. Lenin was an anti-theist who built anti-theism into the DNA of the Soviet Union and persecuted Christians. He was just milder than Stalin. After Stalin, the Soviet Union kept persecuting Christians to the very end. You could be an economic Marxist, but if you were a theist you were denied education or status.
If there had been no Stalin, anti-theists in Eastern Europe would have persecuted theists. They did before and after Stalin.
Some critics say the problem is communism, not anti-theism. Let us forget the question of why young anti-theists who wish to start mass movements were drawn to statist solutions. Instead ask: if a young man were a pure Marxist economically and politically, but a theist, what happened to his career? I have a colleague who personally knows: he would be denied an education. Anti-theism in these states trumps almost any other beliefs. Ask the Chinese Christians who were non-political and were forced to shovel human dung for being Christians.
They were not opposed to any economic or political system: they were theists. That was enough. That is enough.
Some people write me and say that people were killed in the name of Communism and not atheism. Look at the poster in this piece. Read about state atheism and the persecution of the religious in the name of state atheism. This is an offensive bit of “denialism.” Why was this church, a priceless work of art, blown up? Because it was “not communist?”
Finally, some say that the religious persecution was simply getting rid of another power center. Dictators do this. The problem is dictatorship. And yet even when the church and religion were powerless in these regimes, the anti-theistic work continued. How powerful were Russian Pentecostals in the 1970s? Yet the anti-theist state wasted precious foreign policy prestige to persecute them and drive them out of the nation if they could. Why? Not because they were realistic rivals for power, but because they were Christian.
No theistic group in an anti-theistic state has been so weak that they have not received mockery and persecution.
Another criticism is that I am talking about a few dictators and pointing to something (anti-theism) that did not motivate them. Two leaders can have something in common without that something being important. One example used is that both Hitler and Stalin had mustaches, but the mustaches are not to blame for their evil. But pointing out anti-theism in certain leaders is not like pointing to Hitler and Stalin and saying they had mustaches and so mustachioed men must be killers. First, many mustachioed men have held power who were not killers! See our own Theodore Roosevelt. Second, Stalin never killed in the name of his mustache. He did kill in the name of anti-theism. Nobody was sent to the Gulag for failing to have facial hair, but plenty were murdered for believing in God.
And of course generations of anti-theists, many with no mustaches at all, kept the killing and the persecution going to this day. Young people educated with anti-theist texts grew up to choose to persecute theists, not to become paragons of reason that ended “excesses” of earlier generations. In fact, anti-theists in Russia of the 1970s whipped up a revival of persecution of theists lest anti-theists let down the DNA of the society!
Some critics have responded that “yes anti-theism came first” but that anti-theism did not play a causal role in the selection of socialism and the persecution of the religious. This seems implausible. It is very hard to establish that anything causes anything else, but if developing an anti-religious view is not an important motivation in the persecution of religious people, I am not sure what a motive would be! The pastor sent to a psychiatric ward to be “helped” by the anti-theist state because he was a theist would have had little trouble fixing the blame.
Anti-theists were torturing him for being a theist.
From the very start, every anti-theist movement that has gained power has made persecution of religious a primary part of their rule. They impose state textbooks that promote atheism and denigrate religious belief. They limit the opportunities of the religious. Eventually, they take the children and send the religious to get psychiatric help. This is happening today in China: the most populous nation on earth.
This is justified by anti-theist arguments: the religious parent is abusing his child by teaching him about “sky gods” or hell. The religious person is deluded about reality. The state has a duty to act. If someone tells me the reason they are doing a thing is anti-theism, then I see no reason to doubt their self-proclaimed motive.
Meanwhile, 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.**
Other atheists seem incapable of understanding Christianity in responding to my post.
I know of no mainstream Christian group that does not assert “love” is the central attribute of God. The Lord Jesus made the greatest commandment love of neighbor. He told us to love our enemy. Now an atheist critic can cite many failures on the part of Christians to apply this in practice, but this ability for even our critics to condemn us (by our central command) is a strength!
Generally the response is to say: “Well, the Bible says other stuff . . . insert horrid thing . . . not just that love bit.” And this might be true (or it might be an example of reading old books badly), but fails to account for the fact that some parts of books are more important than others. If you meet someone who cannot understand that Jesus commands to love God and neighbor as self (which He says is the summary of the law and prophets) is more important that an episode in II Chronicles, you have met a man who may know how to read words, but does not know how to read books.
Can we all agree that the Christian ethic (for good or bad) is an ethic of love?*
Again, anti-theism does not always lead to persecution of the religious, especially in individuals. Many individual atheists and anti-theists have served democracies well. But anti-theism always has persecuted theists when the anti-theism becomes a mass movement. Freedom of religion may be in the constitution of the state, but when the anti-theists have the run of that state, the words on the document become meaningless.
Does this prove that there is no way for a mass movement anti-theism to exist that does persecute the religious? It does not. I hope that anti-theists, if they ever get power somewhere other than China, Vietnam, or North Korea, do not kill us. I really do. I hope that my anti-theist colleagues are right and they will do better this time. I am not sure I want to find out . . . but I hope to God it is true.
*Yes . . . as Christians define love. I am not arguing for this ethic, just stating that even if false, vile, and wrongheaded, the Christian ethic centers on commands about love. . . not on the details of Levitical worship.
**One should be seriously concerned about the literacy of anyone who responds to this article by constructing long lists of bad deeds done by “Christian governments. First, many of these “Christian governments” are debatably related to Christianity. Second, let me concede every list produced and every horror. The point of this argument is that theists have messed up often, but then we have also not messed up when in the majority and in power. States with established religions have done very well (relative to the historic standards) or any standard sometimes. Anti-theist# governments that are not horrifying stand at 0.
Essentially being a good state is very hard. Christians have taken centuries to work out the Christian ethic of love in practice. We have done better over time. This is why in most states with Christian roots slavery faded out of practice (for example). We also learned that government torture was incompatible with Christian statesmanship and that international law applied to states.
As for “blaming theists”: those that believed in gods, God, a life force, or supernatural power have done almost all the living, dying, building, sinning, loving, and anything else one cares to name over human history. It is remarkable given their small numbers that atheists have not managed to build on anti-theist state that is not horrific. Theists have built several states with established religions that were progressive and allow atheists and secularists much more freedom than the anti-theist states.
#I define an atheist as one who does not believe a God, gods, life-force, or supernatural being exists. I define an anti-theist atheist as one who is an atheist and thinks it important that other people agree with them to the point that anti-theism becomes an active part of their life. I am also using anti-theist to refer to people who are atheists and anti-theists and who also believe that religion is not good for humankind and that it would “better” (more expedient?) if people were not religious. If one likes total precision in blogging (!), these anti-theist anti-religion atheists are the group that has I believe has done poorly when attempting a mass movement and when putting their beliefs into practice in the state. This is a clumsy term to write and acronyms like AAA are clumsy and too precious for use!