The Cause of the 20th Century Atrocities Was Not Atheism
This is a repost of something I’d written up a little over a year ago. It was one of my most popular posts so I’ve decided repost it this week. Enjoy!
In today’s post I’m going to tackle a very common tactic by Christian apologists. Nearly every Christian interested in apologetics nowadays brings up this alleged trump card against atheists. Rather than attempt to defend or deflect the common atheist complaint about the numerous atrocities committed in the name of religion, Christians instead take a different approach. While it is admitted that religion often causes a lot of harm, it’s argued that atheism has caused more harm than Christianity ever has. In this absurd game of one-upmanship with the Communists-killed-a-bunch-more-people-so-atheism-is-worse-than-Christianity argument, I believe something has gotten lost.
Due to Christians largely dictating this debate with their focus on the brutality by the members of the Communist party against religious individuals and institutions, many people (even some atheists) tend to focus on the violence perpetuated by Communists and not enough on their ideology, Marxism.
The way Christians frame this debate today, they bring up one act of violence and oppression after another and some have seemingly bought into the belief that because the Communists were atheists and they attacked religion, the reason must be because they were atheists! Even noted scholars such as Hector Avalos has fallen for this trap when he writes in his book Fighting Words: The Origins Of Religious Violence,
Our discussion will show that Stalin’s reign of terror has as much to do with politics as it did with atheism. (325)
Despite this strong stance he later admits the following,
[W]e cannot find any direct evidence that Stalin’s own personal agenda killed because of atheism [...] [h]owever, we also said that inference was also an allowable method to establish causation, and we can do the same with Stalin. Stalin did follow many antireligious policies that can reasonably be attributed to his atheism. (326)
While I greatly respect Dr. Avalos, and I believe he’s done fabulous research on other topics, I strongly disagree with his views about the motivations of the Communists. He seems to have fallen for the ploy Christians use to frame this discussion, often arguing that atheism is the same thing as anti-religion. This isn’t the case, however.
One Christian in particular touts his experience in speaking with Christians who were tortured and brutalized “for their faith” at the hands of the Communists, and firmly believes he has the facts on his side. This person is David Marshall and in his 2007 book titled The Truth Behind the New Atheism he tries his best to formulate his argument that atheism was the cause of the Communist atrocities. In The Truth Behind the New Atheism he writes,
The New Atheists understandably want to think atheism had nothing to do with all this [the destruction of “China's spiritual treasures” by Chairman Mao]. “There is no evidence that his atheism motivated his brutality,” Dawkins says confidently of Stalin:
Individual atheists may do evil things but they don’t do evil things in the name of religion. Stalin and Hitler did extremely evil things, in the name of, respectively, dogmatic and doctrinaire Marxism, and an insane and unscientific eugenics theory tinged with sub-Wagnerian ranting.
With due respect to Dr. Dawkins, but more to the living and the dead, he should find another debating point.
First, why is it “insane,” from an evolutionary point of view, to kill people outside your genetic or community line? Male tigers do it all the time, and Dawkins tells us Jesus wanted us to do it, too. He’s confused about that, but he knows it follows from his own premises.
Second, has Dawkins never heard of the term “dialectical materialism”?
Stalin didn’t kill alone. Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot, both Kims, Ho, Castro, Ceausescu, and Honecker were also atheists. In one-third of the world, Communist parties announced the death of God on billboards, chalkboards, radio waves, and blank walls. Secret worship services in homes, forests, and caves were forcibly broken up, along with the faces of many who attended. Millions were Tortured for Christ, as the title of a book by Baptist ex-con philosopher Richard Wurmbrand succinctly put it. They had rats driven into their cells, were made to drink urine for communion, or were put into the “carcer” (a cupboard with sides studded by steel spikes) for writing the name Jesus on a cell wall. Children of religious parents were kidnapped by the state and taught atheism in truly “Darwinian” state orphanages. None of that counts against the atheist record, according to Dawkins, because in some undefined sense these crimes were not “for the sake of atheism.” (197-198)
Marshall then brings David Aikman into the discussion, arguing,
David Aikman, former Beijing correspondent for Time magazine, wrote his doctoral dissertation on atheism in the Marxist tradition. Aikman examined the spiritual lives of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin, the founders of communism. He showed that the “systematic assault upon religious belief in Communist countries” had deep roots in the anti-God culture in which these men developed their ideas. (198)
In his dissertation, The Role of Atheism in the Marxist Tradition (1979), Aikman argues that anti-religious views or hostility towards god and/or religion is synonymous with atheism, which is why Marshall put so much emphasis upon the “anti-God” culture of the Enlightenment. For example, in his dissertation, Aikman writes,
This, indeed, is the case. The hostility towards religion in the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and many other Marxist writers, is a well-known characteristic of Marxist philosophy. Some scholars even when approaching the issue from a variety of perspectives, have concluded that anti-religion is the dominant characteristic of Marxism. H.B. Acton, for example, a distinguished professional philosopher, has put it this way:
“Marxism is an anti-religious philosophy first formulated by Marx and Engels, who did not, however, attempt such a closely reasoned account of their view as a whole as Plato and Epicurus or Spinoza did of theirs.” 
The anti-religious and anti-Christian expressions of Marx’s thought, in their overt and explicit forms, are scattered throughout many of his writings of the post-1848 years, both in his correspondence and in his major works like Capital. They indicate that his atheism, though it ceased to be the specific topic of his writings, is a constant in his world view. 
And once more, Aikman says of Marx’s poems written months before he converted to Hegelianism,
It is the thoughts they express, especially towards their own spiritual fates [the characters in Marx's play], that make Oulanem such a rich source for the understanding of Marx’s own emergent rebelliousness towards God. 
Even in his 2008 book, The Delusion of Disbelief: Why the New Atheism is a Threat to Your Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness, Aikman argues that,
[…] the twentieth-century ideologies that produced the greatest totalitarian evils, communism and Nazism, both grew out of a sustained philosophical rebellion against religious faith – in essence, atheism. That philosophical rebellion was birthed in the eighteenth-century French Enlightenment and first gained expression in political life during the 1789-1799 French Revolution; it attained its apotheosis in the Bolshevik regime that came to rule Russia after October 1917. 
It should be more than clear the problems with this argument. First, atheism is defined as the lack of belief in gods: a “without” or “not” and theos “god.” Where does opposition to god/Christianity come into the picture? Atheism is nothing but a negative and contains no positive assertions, such as “I hate religion,” or anything else. Second, even without making use of this philosophical and logical blunder, Marshall and Aikman completely ignore evidence as to what caused the Communists to act as they did: their Marxist ideology.
Regarding the evidence that it was the Communists’ ideology and not atheism all one has to do is look at history, and not the distortion of history as it’s presented by these Christian apologists in Marshall and Aikman. When you look at the quotes of the Communists themselves you can easily see this influence. What follows are a handful of quotes by various Communists:
“The combating of religion cannot be confined to abstract ideological preaching…It must be linked up with the concrete practice of the class movement, which aims at eliminating the social roots of religion…It means that Social Democracy’s atheist propaganda must be subordinated to its basic task – the development of the class struggle of the exploited masses against the exploiters.” 
Here is another quote of Lenin’s from a pamphlet titled Socialism and Religion from 1905,
The economic oppression of the workers inevitably calls forth and engenders every kind of political oppression and social humiliation, the coarsening and darkening of the spiritual and moral life of the masses. The workers may secure a greater or lesser degree of political liberty to fight for their economic emancipation, but no amount of liberty will rid them of poverty, unemployment, and oppression until the power of capital is overthrown. Religion is one of the forms of spiritual oppression which everywhere weighs down heavily upon the masses of the people, over burdened by their perpetual work for others, by want and isolation. Impotence of the exploited classes in their struggle against the exploiters just as inevitably gives rise to the belief in a better life after death as impotence of the savage in his battle with nature gives rise to belief in gods, devils, miracles, and the like. Those who toil and live in want all their lives are taught by religion to be submissive and patient while here on earth, and to take comfort in the hope of a heavenly reward. But those who live by the labour of others are taught by religion to practise charity while on earth, thus offering them a very cheap way of justifying their entire existence as exploiters and selling them at a moderate price tickets to well-being in heaven. Religion is opium for the people. Religion is a sort of spiritual booze, in which the slaves of capital drown their human image, their demand for a life more or less worthy of man.
But a slave who has become conscious of his slavery and has risen to struggle for his emancipation has already half ceased to be a slave. The modern class-conscious worker, reared by large-scale factory industry and enlightened by urban life, contemptuously casts aside religious prejudices, leaves heaven to the priests and bourgeois bigots, and tries to win a better life for himself here on earth. The proletariat of today takes the side of socialism, which enlists science in the battle against the fog of religion, and frees the workers from their belief in life after death by welding them together to fight in the present for a better life on earth.
Religion must be declared a private affair. In these words socialists usually express their attitude towards religion. But the meaning of these words should be accurately defined to prevent any misunderstanding. We demand that religion be held a private affair so far as the state is concerned. But by no means can we consider religion a private affair so far as our Party is concerned. Religion must be of no concern to the state, and religious societies must have no connection with governmental authority. Everyone must be absolutely free to profess any religion he pleases, or no religion whatever, i.e., to be an atheist, which every socialist is, as a rule. Discrimination among citizens on account of their religious convictions is wholly intolerable. Even the bare mention of a citizen’s religion in official documents should unquestionably be eliminated. No subsidies should be granted to the established church nor state allowances made to ecclesiastical and religious societies. These should become absolutely free associations of like-minded citizens, associations independent of the state. Only the complete fulfilment of these demands can put an end to the shameful and accursed past when the church lived in feudal dependence on the state, and Russian citizens lived in feudal dependence on the established church, when medieval, inquisitorial laws (to this day remaining in our criminal codes and on our statute-books) were in existence and were applied, persecuting men for their belief or disbelief, violating men’s consciences, and linking cosy government jobs and government-derived incomes with the dispensation of this or that dope by the established church. Complete separation of Church and State is what the socialist proletariat demands of the modern state and the modern church. 
Here are a few more:
“Religion is by no means the result of exceptional ignorance and darkness, just as it is not a question of simple logic, the result of false thinking. It has its roots in the social life, in the conditions of existence; it grows upon the soil of definite social relations and is determined by the class position in society of the one or the other group.” – Communist Party Conference on Antireligious Propaganda, Article IX, April 1926 
“To the query, “Does modern civilization need religion?” the Communist answer is “yes,” so far as decaying capitalist civilization is concerned. There, under the pressure of crisis, in an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear, religion serves as an escape mechanism for the classes which history has already condemned.” – Julius Hecker, 1933 
“And here is the answer to all the attacks of the clergy: the Social-Democracy in no way fights against religious beliefs. On the contrary, it demands complete freedom of conscience for every individual and the widest possible toleration for every faith and every opinion. But, from the moment when the priests use the pulpit as a means of political struggle against the working classes, the workers must fight against the enemies of their rights and their liberation. For he who defends the exploiters and who helps to prolong this present regime of misery, he is the mortal enemy of the proletariat, whether he be in a cassock or in the uniform of the police.” 
“It cannot be asserted once and for all that priests cannot be members of the Social-Democratic Party; but neither can the reverse rule be laid down. If a priest comes to us to take part in our common political work and conscientiously performs Party duties, without opposing the programme of the Party, he may be allowed to join the ranks of the Social-Democrats; for the contradiction between the spirit and principles of our programme and the religious convictions of the priest would in such circumstances be something that concerned him alone, his own private contradiction; and a political organisation cannot put its members through an examination to see if there is no contradiction between their views and the Party programme. But, of course, such a case might be a rare exception even in Western Europe, while in Russia it is altogether improbable. And if, for example, a priest joined the Social-Democratic Party and made it his chief and almost sole work actively to propagate religious views in the Party, it would unquestionably have to expel him from its ranks. We must not only admit workers who preserve their belief in God into the Social-Democratic Party, but must deliberately set out to recruit them; we are absolutely opposed to giving the slightest offence to their religious convictions, but we recruit them in order to educate them in the spirit of our programme, and not in order to permit an active struggle against it. We allow freedom of opinion within the Party, but to certain limits, determined by freedom of grouping; we are not obliged to go hand in hand with active preachers of views that are repudiated by the majority of the Party.” 
It was believed that religious belief was a necessary aspect of pre-socialist life but was not needed after the society transformed into a socialist one. The Communists’ attempts to create such a socialist society resulted in Stalin’s “Great Terror” and other atrocities since the population did not want to work on collective farms, and the Communists’ attempts to do away with all things they believed would hinder or be unnecessary in a socialist society, which included religion.
One thing you must ask yourself as you read through the above quotes: Do any of these mention atheism as the cause of their dislike of religion? No. It was their Communist ideology which caused them to believe that religion was a hindrance to their socialist utopia and therefore it had to go. Several of these quotes even display their toleration of religion and dislike of religious persecution. However, once religion was believed to be a hindrance to their socialists goals they then began to turn against religion. This had nothing to do with their being atheists, but their political ideology. Aikman and Marshall’s argument fails not only on logical grounds, but also historical.
Having failed with this aspect of his argument, Marshall tries another tactic. He attempts to link atheism directly to Marxism itself. Above I quoted him as follows,
[H]as Dawkins never heard of the term “dialectical materialism”?
Marshall seems to believe this somehow links atheism directly to Marxism but it’s obvious Marshall doesn’t understand what this term means. Dialectical materialism is simply a belief that nothing but the material world exists, which doesn’t even imply atheism in the first place since atheism is only the absence of god belief, not the immaterial world. If this were true that atheism was synonymous with materialism we wouldn’t see any atheistic religions, such as animsim, which also contains beliefs about an immaterial realm. This early religion doesn’t contain beliefs in gods (theism) but does contain a belief in an immaterial dimension. Some atheists even believe in the supernatural, disproving the notion that atheism and materialism are one and the same. They are separate issues. Secondly, this is a theory, first and foremost about history. Therefore, this dialectical view sees historical change take place based upon the tension between thesis and antithesis, which results in an advanced synthesis. This belief about history doesn’t even need to be materialistic, but for Marx it was. In other words, materialism doesn’t even logically follow from this dialectical philosophy. 
Throughout the many books and websites dealing with this subject of atheism and Communism that I’ve read I don’t recall finding anyone making use of this very important and relevant information about the Communists’ ideology. With this post I hope that all atheists who wish to partake in this debate will take a little time to learn about the ideology of Marxism. This will hopefully raise the level of the debate on the issue because the subject of ideology seems mostly absent from this discussion, and I feel this argument will effectively shut down any attempt to use this very common charge by Christian apologists.
In conclusion, I believe the error some atheists (and especially Christians) make when discussing this issue is they focus solely on the historical events of Communist Russia (the religious persecution, murder of clergy, and church closures) and not on the Communists’ ideological beliefs and how they were motivated by them. If one paid more attention to the latter subject I believe less people would be taken in by this Christian propaganda.
1. The Role of Atheism in the Marxist Tradition; 2-3 – - accessed 8-19-12
2. Ibid.; 210
3. Ibid.; 124
4. The Delusion of Disbelief: Why the New Atheism is a Threat to Your Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2008; 101
5. And God Created Lenin: Marxism vs. Religion in Russia, 1917-1929, by Paul Gabel, Prometheus Books, 2005; 90
6. Socialism and Religion, by V.I. Lenin, 1905 – accessed 8-19-12
7. And God Created Lenin; 75
8. Ibid.; 75
9. Socialism and The Churches, by Rosa Luxemburg, 1905 – accessed 8-19-12
10. The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion, by V.I. Lenin, 1909 – accessed 8-19-12
11. And God Created Lenin; 74-75; Making My Way, by Robert: “Was atheism the cause of 20th century atrocities?” – accessed 8-19-12