Monday, July 14, 2008

Communism and Atheism

If you are an atheist, you hear the old canard about how "atheists" were responsible for all the atrocities of the twentieth century. Neglecting the fact that Hitler was Catholic and never renounced his faith and that the Japanese who participated in the rape of Nanking weren't atheists either. But even if we're talking about explicitly atheistic regimes like those of the Soviet Union and communist China, the fact that those regimes were (are) atheistic doesn't prove that atheism inevitably leads to atrocities nor that atheism is inherently destructive.

Because atheism is nothing more than lack of belief in a god or god(s). Just because Stalin and his minions lacked belief in a god or god(s) isn't proof that that is the reason they committed the atrocities they committed. Just because someone is an atheist doesn't mean that you can attribute everything they think or do to the fact that he or she is an atheist. In order to do that, you'd have to show a causal link of some kind between the person's atheism and those acts. Just saying, "Person A is an atheist and did bad things, therefore Person A did bad things because he or she is an atheist" does not make it so.

To demonstrate why this must be true, let us consider that Stalin was also (to my knowledge) not a collector of stamps. He did not participate in philately, the hobby of stamp-collecting, and as such, could be dubbed an a-philatelist (non-stamp collector). Can we then say that a-philately is the cause of the atrocities Stalin committed, and that only an a-philatelist regime could those atrocities happen? Could we say that a-philatelists are responsible for the atrocities of the 20th century? After all, (as far as a I know), none of the great dictators of the 20th century was a philatelist. Not Hitler, not Pol Pot, not Stalin, not Idi Amin...

But, obviously, the fact that none of these men collected stamps cannot be assumed to be the cause of their disregard for human life without further evidence. The fact is, people do things because of what they do believe, not as much because of what they don't believe. All that being an a-philatelist means is that you don't collect stamps. It says very little about what you do do. In the same way, being an atheist means you lack belief in a god or god(s). It says something about what you don't do (worship a god or god(s) or subscribe to a theist religion) but it says very little about what you do do.

Stalin killed because he wanted power and believed he had a right to it. Hitler killed because he believed the Jews and other undesirables were enemies of the German people and were undermining the rightful ascendance of the Aryan people to world domination. Japanese killed Chinese during the rape of Nanking because they believed themselves superior. They did those things because of what they believed, not because of what they didn't believe.

To posit that atheism was the cause of the tragedies perpetrated by atheistic regimes in the 20th century, we would have to see a marked departure from what we have seen from theistic regimes throughout history. That is to say, if theistic regimes never perpetrated mass killings and atrocities, and atheistic regimes did, then we'd have some evidence that atheism was the cause of those atrocities. However, since atheistic regimes seem to differ little from theistic regimes in terms of bloodthirstiness, especially when we consider the fact that the Nazis were not atheists even though the Soviets were, it's difficult to make the argument that atheism was the cause.

As a poster on a blog I read wrote recently, "Vikings breathed air and raided villages and killed the inhabitants. Therefore governments headed by people who breathe air must all be raiders of villages and murderers."


At 6:49 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

Great to see you blogging again!

Hmm ... the nit-picker in me (assuming there's some part of me that's not a nit-picker) bristles a bit at the natural inference from your title (not implication, I know) that communism is responsible for such atrocities. But I guess that is not what you mean.

My view: people do good things, people do bad things. Some people do really bad things ... and that has mostly to do with a combination of psychological problems and a drive for power of some kind (as you point out). As you know, I also don't believe religion is to blame for such things (nor capitalism, for that matter).

These atrocity attributions are almost always false generalizations, of course. (Any points for alliteration?) But what complicates this communism and atheism duo are people's misunderstandings of Marx's views.

Marx did feel that we should shed religion ... and even viewed it as a stumbling to "class awareness", so found it particularly vexing. But (and I could be wrong here ... it's been a while since I read Das Kapital) I don't believe he ever suggested that communism required an atheist society. Even if he did, the link is very indirect at best.

Marx also talked about violence; however, as I am sure you know, Marx discussed it as an inevitability of class awareness. Marx did not advocate violence. In fact, he was warning societies that this was going to happen as soon as the lower classes fully appreciated that they could correct the situation. Also, his warning was about the transition to socialization, not about the maintenance of it.

(Also, he was wrong: several societies have made the jump to a more centralized social economy without violence.)

Stalin was a messed up man who used an extraordinarily distorted view of Marxism to gain and maintain a lot of power. The focus of his violence was predominantly those that opposed him politically and certain ethnic groups. Yes, he was an atheist and an ardent opponent of religion, but certainly neither atheism nor communism are to blame for his atrocities.

The frustrating thing is that trading these falsely general barbs back and forth does little to elucidate why such atrocities happen; little to help us understand the potential impact of one another's belief, political, and economic systems; and little to convince anyone of anything. They are at best extreme wastes of time and at worst a willful, gross distortion that uses fear to reinforce and re-entrench one's own views.

Can most of us not agree that Adolf Hitler, Joseph, Stalin, Mao Zedong, and that obnoxious brit on American Idol were merely deviant sociopaths obsessed with the continued assimilation of power? I hardly think any one set of metaphysical, economic, or political views has cornered the market on wack-jobs.

BTW: I also am not aware of Stalin being a philatelist; however, he did appear on a stamp with Mao. A gruesome pair, indeed. Does Simon Fuller have a stamp?


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