Atheistic regimes killed millions in the last century. Nobody denies this fact, though some deny atheism had much to do with the murder. Religious people kill in the name of religion, so surely this is just an example of bad men, totalitarians, doing bad things who happened to be atheists?
Yet there is decent reason to connect the atheism to the killing. Atheism as the dominant form of thought in a state correlates very neatly with mass murder. How could this be given our experience with the generally friendly atheists in America and Europe? Of course, there are few atheists in most parts of the world. Even Europe is nothing like majority atheist.*
This question is of personal interest to me. I have known victims of atheistic regimes, but also friendly Western atheists. I owe a good bit of my education to wonderful atheists. Atheists are friends, neighbors, and have been co-workers.
Yet there is a difference between the atheists one meets. There are atheists who simply think there is no God, life force, or higher power. That is a belief without a system! Talk about anything else and you will find great grounds for agreement. Then there are atheists who are also anti-theists: they actively dislike and work against religion. These are the atheists that have proven dangerous in power and are worrisome to civil society.
But there is a more serious problem with connecting anti-theistic atheism (from now on just atheism) to genocide: correlation is not necessarily causation. It is nearly impossible to be sure that any given belief caused any given action. However, much of the state mass murder of the twentieth century and that is happening now (see China and North Korea) probably have atheism as a cause. Here is why sensible people think this is true:
First, the atheists of Russia, China, North Korea, Cambodia, Albania came to their atheism and then picked a social and economic system compatible with their general worldview. Individuals decided traditional religion was bunk and harmful and became atheists. They sought a worldview that would fit their newfound freedom. Most atheists of this sort picked a “soft socialism” and lived off an inherited Christian or Jewish morality. They were decent people, but failed to ignite a mass movement.
Mass atheism came with passion and passion came when anti-theism became essential to the atheistic agenda. Men like Trotsky, Stalin, and Lenin were not born totalitarians but they adopted a strain of atheism that led to different choices and developed in ways harmful to their character. Anti-theism, not just a soft atheism, was a chief motivation in their lives and they picked a world view to go with the anti-theism.
This was not a necessary function of the philosophical belief there was no God, but appears to be necessary to inspire enough people to get control of a government. Anti-theism can produce a large enough minority to seize power in a nation and impose official atheism. The only nations that have been officially atheistic have been uniformly horrible.
Second, atheism was used as a reason for persecution in all of these nations. When people tell you that you are being persecuted because you are religious, it creates a powerful presumption that religion is the reason you are being persecuted.
I have colleagues who worked with Eastern Europeans and Russians with Marxist economic and social views who were denied a university education because they were theists. It was not communism (they were economic communists) that motivated their persecution, but anti-theism. Being an atheist was necessary in those states. Anti-theism crops up in atheistic circles and there is nothing in atheism to check it. Unlike Judaism or Christianity, there is no built-in check on genocide.
Christians are told to “love their enemies.” Have they always done this? No. They have often failed, but their failure hits against an essential part of their belief system. Christians that kill or torture are denying part of Christianity. An anti-theist creates his own values, so he can decide that theism is a serious enough mental illness to put theists into “remediation” in mental hospitals. How many Christians were killed in psychiatric wards in atheistic states? Nobody is sure of the number, but it is in the thousands.
Many of your friendly atheists next door (almost always former Christians) repudiate this, but not because of any atheistic beliefs. They have chosen to reject Rand-like selfishness (Rand: atheist) or “greater good” Stalinism. By contrast, a Christian who kills in the name of Christ has the words of Christ thrown up to him by everyone, even atheists! Thank God for God because God allows even atheists to criticize tyrannical Christian states from history.
Finally, there is a nearly perfect track record of officially atheist states killing large numbers of innocent people to this day. When atheists gain power and can impose an anti-theism, they have always started killing people. If one creates meaning and values, it is all well and good to say (when you have no power) that you personally will act even better than your Christian neighbor, but nobody could say you were wrong if you did not. Large mass movements dedicated to selfishness or to ideology (Rand or Communism) have not external authority to allow the common member of society to rebuke the leaders.
A bad bishop can be rebuked based on professed Christian beliefs. A bad atheist cannot since atheism has no creed or necessary beliefs beyond not believing in God, a life force, or a higher power.
Usually parts of the world like Western Europe are cited as an example that atheists can govern benevolently, but the most atheistic nation in Europe (probably France) is about forty-percent atheist. All these states contain massive amounts of powerful Christian, Jewish, and Islamic voices that act as a check to atheism. The states of Western Europe are also not governed by a constitution produced by a dominant atheistic group and generally have large parties that were historically “Christian” that still have a great deal of clout. The churches may be (fairly) empty in some Western European nations, but the culture is still derived directly from a mild Christian democratic consensus that formed at the end of World War II. Just as active resistance to Hitler and Stalin were overwhelmingly motivated by religious belief, so the constitutional heritage of Western Europe is part of that last flowering of Christian Europe.
Most atheists in America certainly would not kill anybody just for being religious, but they are not the “mass movement” types. They are virtuous classicists and their appeal is limited. The “mass movement atheists” are angry and have no respect for religion. They are living off a borrowed Christian culture and show no sign of being able to sustain it. They are not producing music, art, or culture worth attention, but they are mad as hell, so to speak. And shouldn’t American atheists at least acknowledge that some Americans recently fled here from states that forced atheist arguments down their throats?
Western Europe in its twilight is a very appealing place to live. It has much of the merits of an inherited Christian culture combined with strong social services (often created by Christian democratic movements). Unfortunately, as it has secularized, Western Europe has shown no ability to sustain or defend itself either in the most basic sense of having sufficient children or competing with outside religious communities.
Of course, none of this proves that if your local Internet atheist troll took over, people would lose civil rights, freedom of religion, their children, their right to religious education, and eventually their lives in “re-education camps”, but the track record is very bad and their present tone not promising.
I would propose that Western atheists of the anti-theist sort take over a nation or an area and run it for a decade or two. They should create new social norms, new art, and new constitutions. They should test these new forms in a free market of ideas and see how it goes. If they produce a society with power that does not commit genocide, then many of us will rest easier. Until then, humility from our anti-theist atheist friends is in order. All we can do is hope they would not kill us this time if they took power.
Dialog is always good, but dialog must begin with this truth: my church had millions of members killed by anti-theist atheists in my lifetime. There has been little or no reckoning for this mass murder: few have been held accountable. Secular apologists for these regimes retain their positions and have never apologized when the data of mass killings, torture, and persecution was made available with the fall of the Soviet Union. It isn’t hundreds of years ago and impacts the lives of people who attend my church this week. There is no corresponding Christian nation (where Christianity is the state religion) that has tortured atheists, murdered them, or sent them to reeducation camps in the name of Christianity. To give one example, the atheist police state in East Germany regime was spying on and persecuting Christians right up to 1989. State texts repeated official atheist attacks on religion to children of theists. State schools discriminated against theists. Surely a quarter of a century is too soon to forget!
The same things are happening today in China, the world’s most populous nation, where theism and membership in the governing party are incompatible. I have personally talked with people from China forced into slave labor camps (shoveling human excrement) for their religious faith. Hundreds of these camps exist. The state continues to produce streams of anti-theist propaganda. There is no parallel Christian state anywhere in the world.
Arguably, the highest percentage of self-identified Christians in a large state is found in Romania. In my lifetime, anti-theists were persecuting Romanian theists when they had power. I would argue that an atheist in Romania today is better off than a theist was in Romania when governed by an officially atheist party!
These are the facts and dialog with a certain kind of anti-theist must begin with those facts. Christians are not paranoid to worry and would be foolish not to do so. A rising tide of anti-theism (or even anti-clericalism) has oft been a prelude to death. Asking victims of these crimes just to “move on” or read similar screeds to ones they had to read in their state run officially atheistic schools without a visceral reaction is unreal. The twentieth and twenty-first century victims of state atheism cannot read “angry atheism” without a shudder and this is reasonable. Let’s start any dialog with this in mind.
*The highest figure for the percentage of atheists in Europe I have seen is roughly 15%. Whenever I discuss religion in Europe some angry person will say Sweden (with its Christian heritage) is atheistic . . . but of course: 18% of Swedes believe in a traditional God, 45% believe in a spirit or life force. Sweden is not a “majority atheistic” country. It has a constitution inherited from more Christian times. See also Swedish Lutheranism, the monarchy, the flag, and many other Swedish cultural forces that still exist. It does not promulgate “anti-theism” and it has a growing Islamic population.
**Start here for a neutral discussion of Russian atheist persecution of religious. Note the revival in persecution in the 1970’s. I have met many trolls who act as if persecution ended with Stalin’s temporary lightening of persecution to rally Christians in Russia to defeat his old ally Hitler. Atheistic Russian persecution or social”apartheid” against the religious continued until atheism lost power. Official anti-theism produced these renewed persecutions as atheists (of this sort) pushed for a revival (!) of the old time atheistic fervor to renew the “rational” or “scientific” state. Anti-theistic atheism certainly is highly associated with renewed persecution . . . and was cited as the motive for it. The Russians are just one example of many. Of course, this persecution continues today in Asia.