One common criticism of atheism is that during the 20th century, totalitarian communist governments of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were responsible for a scale of death and destruction hitherto unseen in the history of human civilisation.
The criticism arises from the fact that Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were all atheists, and their governments aggressively promoted secularism, and were allegedly openly hostile to religion. Thus, it is argued that a full embrace of atheism can only lead to violence and disregard for the importance of life.
The problem with this line of reasoning is that it fails to establish a logical connection between atheism and violence of this kind.
Atheism is not an ideology or a world view – it is simply a description of what a person’s degree of belief is with respect a single proposition… God(s) Exist(s)… to which the degree of belief is minimal, or non-existent. The term ‘atheist’ says nothing about what a persons moral views are, what a person’s political dispensation might be, or what a person’s attitudes towards religion are (besides disbelief), or a person’s views on the value of human life. The same can be said of the term theism. A person being a theist says nothing about a person’s moral or political views, or attitude towards human life. The term ‘theist’ is simply a description of what a person’s degree of belief is with respect a single proposition… God(s) Exist(s)… to which the degree of belief is high.
To even speculate about what a theist’s views were on morality or politics, it would be necessary to know what theology this person subscribes to. A theology is a particular ideology which usually contains prescriptions for moral behaviour that have been articulated through the writings of those that claim to have been inspired by a particular deity. Religions are made distinct by which theology underpins them.
If within a religious text are instructions about how to regard certain types of behaviour or how to treat certain types of people, and the same text instructs its adherents to follow these instructions without question, then knowing what a person’s religious belief is (or what theology this person subscribes to) can shed some light on what a person’s attitude might be regarding certain types of behaviour and people. It will also possible to establish a logical connection between this persons religion/theology and his/her actions, especially if this person’s theology includes prescriptions for behaviour (which almost all theologies do).
Similarly, in trying to speculate about the motivating factor behind the actions of people who do not believe in the existence of ‘God’, one should not look to atheism, but to the philosophies/ideologies individual atheists subscribe to… and no, atheism is not a philosophy or ideology.
The totalitarian communism that led to horrible atrocities in the 20th century was not because of anything inherent in atheism that inclines those who disbelieve in the existence of any deities towards violence. This is because there is nothing inherent within atheism itself that prescribes any code of conduct, or behaviour.
As an atheist I personally subscribe to a basic form of reciprocity (i.e. treat others as you would want to be treated) as my basis for interacting with others. I have found, through reasoning and experience, that this approach to ‘morality’, as imperfect as it may be, is most conducive for building a healthy, peaceful society. Given that this is what I subscribe to, it is quite unlikely that I will find myself advocating for murder or violence against anyone, even those I disagree with.
I do not need to appeal to a source outside of myself (e.g. a god) to understand why I would want to live in a healthy, peaceful society. The reason is simple… living in a healthy and peaceful society is beneficial for my own well-being and survival, the well-being and survival of my kin and others in my social group, and by extension society at large.
Atheism, Societal Health and Morality:
In his paper published in the Journal of Religion and Society titled Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies, researcher and social scientist Gregory Paul found strong correlations between irreligiosity and societal health. Societal health was measured using a set of indicators that included violent crime, murder, suicide, sexual promiscuity and abortion. He wrote:
“In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies.”
“The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted.”
Also, according to a study published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences in 2010, people who have no religion know right from wrong just as well as regular worshippers – and are just as ethical and have as strong a moral compass as churchgoers. The Telegraph quotes the Dr Marc Hauser, from Harvard University, one of the co-authors of the research, as saying:
“For some, there is no morality without religion, while others see religion as merely one way of expressing one’s moral intuitions,”
“The research suggests that intuitive judgments of right and wrong seem to operate independently of explicit religious commitments.”
Thus, no logical connection can be established between atheism (lack of belief in deities) and violence whatsoever. Countries like Japan, Sweden, and the Netherlands which rank among the least religious countries in the world, are also the countries that are the safest, with the best record on respect for human rights in the world.
This is not to say that all atheists are completely incapable of doing bad things; it only means that being an atheist does not automatically lead a person to do bad things, and neither does it make him/her more prone, compared to believers, to do doing bad things.
Dogmatism – The Problem:
The problem with totalitarian communism as was practiced in the former Soviet Union under Stalin, or Mao’s China, was not that it was inherently atheistic, but its uncanny resemblance to fundamentalist forms of dogmatic religion; a point well-illustrated in this video:
Unquestioning obedience of, and loyalty to, authority… and unquestioning loyalty to the state and its leadership… In these communist states, the state was their ‘religion’ and its leaders were its ‘gods’.
Author Sam Harris wrote :
The problem with fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions. Such regimes are dogmatic to the core and generally give rise to personality cults that are indistinguishable from cults of religious hero worship. Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields were not examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma; they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run amok. There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.
As a freethinker, I do not advocate for atheism, but for freethought.
My contention is that atheism is the inevitable conclusion from the application of freethought in trying to understand reality – understandably, there are many theists who will disagree with this contention. But because freethought is a philosophical viewpoint that holds that opinions should be formed on the basis of science, logic, and reason, and should not be influenced by authority, tradition, religion or any other dogma, it is by definition incompatible with dogmatism of any kind, whether it be religious, cultural or political in nature.
With respect to the issue of atrocities in general, the culprit is dogmatism, not religion per se – or the lack of it. The atrocities that transpired in the communist regimes during the 20th century are directly attributable, not to the atheism of the leaders of those countries, but to dogmatic communism – with most of the victims losing their lives on account of being viewed as enemies of the regime, whose approach to governance was considered to be absolute. In communist U.S.S.R., religion was opposed not for disputes about its metaphysical claims, but because its institutions were considered a competitor or threat to the regime’s aspirations for total and absolute control (there are historical reasons for why they would have thought this).
I therefore think the discussion between theists and atheists on this issue would be better served if it focused on the assessment of what philosophies/ideologies were more susceptible to lending themselves to dogmatism (which in turn leads to violence)… in which case I think a good case can be made for how religion qualifies as such a philosophy – as does communism, nationalism and patriotism, among other ideologies. This approach to debate shouldn’t be controversial even for theists, because many of them do recognise the problems that dogmatism leads to. Centuries of religious war in Europe attest to this fact.
Religion’s main problem is that it lends itself easily to dogmatism, as the most widely practiced forms of it (i.e. Judaism, Christianity & Islam) claim to derive inspiration from a divine being whose prescriptions for life are believed to be absolute. Further, acting in service of this being by preserving, propagating, and enforcing its absolute prescriptions for life, is seen by most who subscribe to these religions as the greatest possible act of virtue. There is therefore very little room for debate in resolving differences in opinion on these ‘absolute’ prescriptions for life, and it is easy to see how hostility or violence ensues when these differing opinions cross paths.
History has shown us that hostility and violence also ensues when differing opinions on absolutist views of patriotism, nationalism, and other dogmatic political ideologies cross paths.
The enemy is dogma… in all its forms… whether religious, or secular.
Recommended Reading: Was atheism the cause of 20th century atrocities?