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Posted by on Mar 3, 2014 in Atheism, Featured, History, Morality, Religion and Society | 36 comments

A Great Myth about Atheism: Hitler/Stalin/Pol Pot = Atheism = Atrocity

For Hitchens and co, religion does little good and secularism hardly any evil. Never mind that tyrants devoid of religion such as Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Mao and Pol Pot perpetrated the worst atrocities in history. As H. Allen Orr, professor of biology at the University of Rochester, observed, the 20th century was an experiment in secularism that produced secular evil, responsible for the unprecedented murder of more than 100 million. (Abramovich, 2009)

Yes, here it is again, the ubiquitous claim that atheism = Stalin/Pol Pot = moral atrocities. This is a complex one, so hang around. It is commonly claimed by Christians, and I had a debate about this on the Unbelievable forum on facebook recently with many who did, that secular atheism was responsible for the atrocities of the twentieth century perpetrated by the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot (Mao Zedong is often thrown in for good measure). This raises several questions:

  1. Were these people atheists?
  2. If so, was their atheism causally instrumental in these people carrying out such atrocities?
  3. Are these atrocities different in any particular and important way to those carried out by religious predecessors?

I am going to look at all of these points and show that atheism is not the cause of such atrocities. It might be worth considering that, at the time of writing here in the UK, the Prime Minister is atheist, the Deputy is atheist and the shadow leader is most certainly an atheist and we have not yet committed any huge atrocities under their command! That said, the last religious leader we had (Tony Blair) went, at the behest of his US (Christian) counterpart, George W. Bush, on a Crusade into the Middle East in what many call an illegal war. Go figure.

Looking first at question number 1), were these people atheists? The Hitler question has been answered by many people more knowledgeable on the subject than me. Suffice it to say, in simple terms, no, he wasn’t. Yes, there was Gott mit uns on army belts, and Hitler cozied up to religious institutions, probably more for his own political ends. Importantly, atheists were persecuted. As wiki states:

In Germany during the Nazi era, a 1933 decree stated that “No National Socialist may suffer detriment… on the ground that he does not make any religious profession at all”.[15] However, the regime strongly opposed “godless communism”,[16][17] and most of Germany’s atheist and largely left-wing freethought organizations were banned the same year; some right-wing groups were tolerated by the Nazis until the mid-1930s.[18][19] During negotiations leading to the Nazi-Vatican Concordat of April 26, 1933 Hitler stated that “Secular schools can never be tolerated” because of their irreligious tendencies.[20]

In one speech he stated:

“We were convinced that the people need and require this faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.”

Hitler (a baptised Catholic who was never ex-communicated) flirted with assorted deistic paganistic ideas of Christianity and religion, all of which basically amounts to not being an atheist in any recognisable way.

In a speech in 1922, he stated:

“My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was his fight against the Jewish poison. Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed his blood upon the Cross. As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice. …And if there is anything which could demonstrate that we are acting rightly, it is the distress that daily grows. For as a Christian I have also a duty to my own people. And when I look on my people I see them work and work and toil and labor, and at the end of the week they have only for their wages wretchedness and misery. When I go out in the morning and see these men standing in their queues and look into their pinched faces, then I believe I would be no Christian, but a very devil, if I felt no pity for them, if I did not, as did our Lord two thousand years ago, turn against those by whom today this poor people are plundered and exploited.”

Now, we can argue about context and whatnot, but what is clear is that Hitler was far from being clearly an atheist who committed atrocities in the name of atheism, or because he was and atheist.  As Austin Cline writes in showing that the Nazi party itself was certainly not atheistic:

The NSDAP Party Program stated: “We demand freedom for all religious confessions in the state, insofar as they do not endanger its existence or conflict with the customs and moral sentiments of the Germanic race. The party as such represents the standpoint of a positive Christianity, without owing itself to a particular confession….”

Positive Christianity adhered to basic orthodox doctrines and asserted that Christianity must make a practical, positive difference in people’s lives. It’s difficult to maintain that Nazi ideology was atheistic when it explicitly endorsed and promoted Christianity in the party platform.

So despite what Hitler’s personal views were, Nazi Germany was never an atheistic nation, and it takes more than one man to enact all of those atrocities.

With regard to the Holocaust, whose causal roots re undoubtedly complex, one can be sure that Christian anti-Semitism played a part, as it had done throughout Europe for centuries in various Semitic discriminations. The discrimination against Jews and homosexuals has long been the pastime of conservative Christians rather than of left-leaning atheists – you only have to look at the notions espoused by Martin Luther in the time of the Reformation – see Von den Juden und iren Lugen (On the Jews and Their Lies).

As one commentator opines:

Hitler’s biographer John Toland explains Catholicism’s influence on the Holocaust. He says of Hitler: “Still a member in good standing of the Church of Rome despite detestation of its hierarchy, he carried within him its teaching that the Jew was the killer of god. The extermination, therefore, could be done without a twinge of conscience since he was merely acting as the avenging hand of god. . ..”

Even after World War II, Catholic assistance to the Nazis continued. The Vatican aided the escape of more Nazis than any other governmental or private entity. Christopher Hitchens adds: “It was the Vatican itself, with its ability to provide passports, documents, money, and contacts, which organized the escape network and also the necessary shelter and succor at the other end.”

So I think we can safely put to bed this idea that the Nazis were, in any clear and causal manner, atheists; and we can conclude that Christians did not help matters in any institutional way.

Let us now look to whether Stalin and Pol Pot were atheists.

Russell Blackford, fellow SINner, sets out in his excellent 50 Great Myths of Atheism:

By contrast to all this, the Soviet Union was undeniably an atheist state, and the same applies to Maoist China and to Pol Pot’s fanatical Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the 1970s. That does not, however, show that the atrocities committed by these totalitarian dictatorships were the result of atheist beliefs, carried out in the name of atheism, or caused primarily by the atheistic aspects of the relevant forms of communism. In all of these cases, the situation was more complex – as, to be fair, also applies to some of the persecutions and atrocities in which religious movements, organizations, and leaders have been deeply implicated over the centuries.

It is pretty clear that the two leaders were atheists. But Hitler and Stalin had moustaches. It does not follow that moustaches were an important causal factor in the atrocities committed by them or under their tenure. Commoality is not causation. As wiki states of Stalin:

Raised in the Georgian Orthodox faith, Stalin became an atheist. He followed the position that religion was an opiate that needed to be removed in order to construct the ideal communist society. His government promoted atheism through special atheistic education in schools, anti-religious propaganda, the antireligious work of public institutions (Society of the Godless), discriminatory laws, and a terror campaign against religious believers.

As for Pol Pot, things are a little less obvious. One oft-cited quote by Christians appears to be that Prince Norodom Sihanouk once said of Pol Pot:

“Pol Pot does not believe in God but he thinks that heaven, destiny, wants him to guide Cambodia in the way he thinks it the best for Cambodia, that is to say, the worst. Pol Pot is mad, you know, like Hitler.”

But I cannot find the source of this quote. Either way, it shows some pretty incongruous views, and shows that he seemed to have been mad qua irrational, and believed in forces outside of himself such as destiny and heaven. In A. Gregor’s Totalitarianism and Political Religion: An Intellectual History (p. 246), the author states of Pol Pot (Sar):

Ample evidence survives that throughout his life, Sar harbored hate, in equal measure, of both Colonialists an his Vietnamese neighbors, both of whom he forever saw as a threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Cambodia. In the course of his political evolution–whatever his real or imputed ideological commitments–that never was to change. It can be argued that by the time he reached early maturity, Sar–whatever else he was–was a political and cultural nationalist. Before their disappearance into history, the Red Khmer, the revolutionaries led by Sar as Pol Pot, maintained that their purpose had always been to “defend and forever maintain their nation, people, and race. Whatever ele they claimed to be, the Khmers Rouges gave ample testimony of being reactive nationalists–with all that the notion implies.

It is pretty clear from this that Pol Pot had a powerful political agenda at play, where politics is something which can replace religion. In fact, in the book just quoted from, there are chapter titles as follows: Leninism: Revolution as Religion; Fascism: The State as Religion; and National Socialism: Race as Religion. These chapters show there is far more to the matrix of causality at play here than a simple lack of belief in a deity.

When looking at texts which analyse the causality of genocides, in particular the atrocities of Pol Pot, I found the following to be the case (this is quoted from my facebook discussion):

It’s interesting that in Kiernan’s book “The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia Under the Khmer” which looks in depth at Pol Pot’s murderous regime, the word atheism/t does not appear in the whole book, God only twice, insignificantly (one in a quote about Siva, another in a direct quote that is not relevant here). Fawthrop and Jarvis’ book “Getting Away with Genocide?: Elusive Justice and the Khmer Rouge Tribunal” has no mention of the word atheism/t either. The same for Andeeopouloos’ “Genocide: Conceptual and Historical Dimensions”.

In answer to question 2), then, I challenge that atheism is at all properly the cause of such atrocities. Of Pol Pot, William Vollmann writes, in talking of a British journalist’s approach to the genocide of Cambodia (Vollmann is reviewing Philip Short’s biography of Pol Pot):

In other words, he seems to say, what Pol Pot did was hardly beyond the Cambodian ordinary. ”Every atrocity the Khmers Rouges ever committed, and many they did not, can be found depicted on the stone friezes of Angkor . . . or, in more recent times, in the conduct of the Issaraks,” the anti-French insurgents who threw those heads into the ponds back in 1949.

This is perhaps a little generous because there was no doubt an awful lot more politics going on, with a strong communist agenda. Vollmann continues:

Perhaps the problem is that Pol Pot was mediocre in almost every sphere: a failed technical student, an uninspired military leader who wasted the lives of his troops in badly planned offensives and ignored emergencies, a misguided ruler. In sum, Pol Pot would exert little claim on our attention were it not for the fact that millions died through his cruelty and incompetence. In ”Brother Number One,” Chandler admits defeat at the outset: ”I was able to build up a consistent, but rather two-dimensional picture. . . . As a person, he defies analysis.”

Vollmann’s analysis seems to point to the complexity of understanding such a man. In a paper looking at the psychological characteristics of a commandant of a torture and death camp in Cambodia, Paul Wilson observes:

This finding lends weight to the view that an individuals’ involvement in genocide and other related crimes is best understood as a complex interaction between the situation people find themselves during times of war or civil conflict and their personality characteristics.

“It’s atheism wot did it” doesn’t really cut the mustard. That said, communism, and incredibly strong political drive and drive for power, and sustaining that power, is certainly integral to what went on. This simplistic attitude is summed up nicely in Renee Nabors’ piece (“Genocidal Triviality: An Analysis of the Perpetrators of the Holocaust and Cambodian Genocide”):

A common myth about the Holocaust and the Cambodian Genocide, authored for its convenience and political correctness, is that the perpetrators, aside from the high command, were either coerced or brainwashed. A grave but crucial reality of the genocides, however, lies in their origins. The common German citizen committed genocide; the ordinary Cambodian sustained the murder of 2 million. By choosing not to understand genocide, we compromise our ability to prevent it….

To understand how the tragedy of the Cambodian genocide came to be, it is important to note the ideology and political culture that defined the country at the time. Pol Pot believed wholeheartedly in Maoist thought, from which he derived his ideas about forced egalitarianism, cutting ties from the outside world, and destroying anciently rooted culture. He was at best, however, a mediocre student of Mao.… Furthermore, he failed to learn from Mao Zedong that the consequence of mass social experimentation was utter chaos. The fact that Cambodia’s “Brother Number One” understood only superficially the ideology on which he based his revolution is significant. It shows that the typical farmer’s boy Khmer Rouge soldier did not join because he thought highly of Marx, nor because he considered Pol Pot to be particularly brilliant, but because it was something to grasp on to. Pol Pot was not the end, but rather the means by which a desperate and fractionalized people sought a better life….

…The ability of Pol Pot, in four years, to create an obscure and unfounded deadly good versus evil fantasy and still maintain a strong cult-of-personality and international apathy is incomparably disturbing.

It is interesting to note that, again, Nabors’ fascinating piece makes no mention of God, or a lack thereof. Atheism is not on the table, it plays no defining role.

And much the same can be said of Stalin, where “enemies of the people” were killed or made to do forced labour. It was not because Stalin did not believe in God. And here I will answer question 3) fairly frankly. I am an atheist for all intents and purposes) and yet I stand starkly against such genocide. Why? Because a lack of belief in God (or a positive claim that God does not exist) does not define my politics, nor my morality. Atheists comprise a growing proportion of the world’s population, and yet they also adhere to the myriad of different politics and moralities that the world has to offer.Whilst one could say that, on balance, atheists are perhaps more liberal (socially) than religionists, one cannot claim that people’s atheism causes them to commit particular acts. I contend that people’s politics are more core to their beliefs, being based much on in-group / out-group psychology and intuitive  desires, such that atheism or theism take a second place in an internal hierarchy within most.

As Blackford claims:

Sorting out the roles played by religious or antireligious beliefs, as opposed to such things as worldly ambition and lust for glory, is often a nontrivial task, and we should be careful before adopting simplistic narratives. In the case of twentieth-century communist regimes, much of the death toll – perhaps most of it – arose from utterly ruthless attempts to effect economic transformations on a near-apocalyptic scale….

While all this is a horrible indictment of the Soviet leadership and perhaps the ideology that the leaders embraced, little of it relates to atheism as such.Indeed, the Soviet Union did not have a uniformly antagonistic relationship to religion, and the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church supported the regime’s military initiatives, such as suppression of the uprising in Hungary, the building of the Berlin Wall, and the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan (Baggini, 2003, p. 88).

Young Stalin

A young Stalin

Both Stalin and Pol Pot sought to create a utopia through social and economic reform and engineering on a gargantuan scale. Blackford’s chapter on this very myth is forceful, and he sums up the misguided approach with aplomb:

While we do not doubt that religious people were often targeted as enemies of all these regimes’ grandiose plans, this was usually because churches and other religious authorities (such as those related to Confucian tradition in China) were seen as actual or potential sources of resistance. Once again, the Soviet authorities were not always on bad terms with the Orthodox Church, and the aim of these communist regimes was to suppress any opposition, from whatever source, while carrying out massive transformations of their countries’ economic bases. There was plenty of fanaticism involved, but mainly about holding onto power and engaging in mass-scale forms of social engineering – whether agricultural collectivization, forced urbanization, or, as in the case of Pol Pot’s ‘‘Democratic Kampuchea,’’ forced deurbanization and abandonment of learning and technology.

None of this follows from mere atheism, and instead far more comprehensive political and economic ideologies were relied upon. These bear little resemblance to the views of most thinkers in the rationalist tradition that dates back to ancient Greece, and they are remote from anything found in the thinking of high-profile atheists involved in current debates – ‘‘celebrity atheists,’’ to use Abramovich’s trivializing expression – who tend to be political liberals and pluralists. Indeed, con- temporary atheists tend to oppose comprehensive, apocalyptic ideologies such as Nazism, Stalinism, and Pol Pot’s agrarian socialism, partly because these imitate so many of the features of monotheistic religion – aspects of religion that contributed historically to pogroms, witch hunts, and inquisitions.

So in conclusion, I think that theists who posit atheism as a necessary or defining causal factor in these atrocities is doing a disservice to history, politics and rational thought. It is evident that this prima facie approach to understanding what caused such genocide and atrocity is very naive, at best. That the experts in the relevant fields fail to see atheism as not even a, let alone the, driving factor is telling.

But what does this say about atheists’ claims of religious causality with regard to supposedly religiously driven atrocity, be it the Spanish Inquisition or the Crusades, or even modern day Islamic extremism? Well, for a start, one must treat each historical event on a case by case basis, and one must be careful not to commit hypocrisy, for sure.

There is, though, a huge difference; that being that there is no defining ‘holy book’ or text which seeks to dictate what atheists should or shouldn’t do as some divine diktat. This is crucial. One can hardly call atheism into causal importance when all atheism states is that there is no god. Yet the Qu’ran states,

“Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Messenger have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection.” Qur’an 9:29

and

“Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as Allah has guarded; and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely Allah is High, Great.” Qur’an 4:34

Or perhaps it is worth considering some Yahwistic commands (from the Leviticus entry in the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible):

  1. If you refuse to kill someone who gives his seed to Molech, God set his face against you and your family.20:4-5
  2. “For every one that curseth his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.” Couldn’t we try spanking first? 20:9
  3. Both parties in adultery shall be executed. 20:10
  4. If a man has sex with his father’s wife, kill them both. 20:11
  5. If a man “lies” with his daughter-in-law, then both must be killed. 20:12
  6. If a man has sex with another man, kill them both. 20:13
  7. If you “lie” with your wife and your mother-in-law (now that sounds fun!), then all three of you must be burned to death. 20:14
  8. If a man or woman “lie with a beast” both the person and the poor animal are to be killed. 20:15-16
  9. People with “familiar spirits” (witches, fortune tellers, etc.) are to be stoned to death. 20:27
  10. A priest’s daughter who “plays the whore” is to be burned to death. 21:9

Granted, we all know the horrible verses and commands in the Bible, so you get the point. Suffice to say that there is some solid divine benchmarking for some seriously dubious behaviour. On the other hand, “There is no god” tells you nothing. It dictates, commands, decrees and countenances not.

Rather than criticise atheists in their own way, it might pay to make sure their own religious tracts are not telling them to do terrible things. After all, the Bible was used to countenance slavery for 2,000 years. There literally is no counterpart for the Bible to atheists. We cannot be told to do something in such terms. Yes, there are probably, undoubtedly, more complex reasons as to why the Aztecs died at the hands of the Spanish conquistadores, probably less complex reasons for the Crusades and the Inquisition. One must remember that is such events are to be compared with such heinous ‘atheistic’ crimes of genocide, then a fair comparison must be made, and this must be one of intention. In other words, you cannot compare such events in real terms. Atheistic Stalin killed millions because he had the instruments and infrastructure to do so. But was his intention any different to, say, a Christian Crusader king? If the Crusader had weapons of mass destruction and transportation devices at his fingertips, would he have caused much greater destruction? Of course. Populations were also much smaller, so given less ability and smaller numbers of people in real terms, of course earlier religious atrocities seemed less repugnant. And so the questions should be:

  • Were the intentions any different?
  • What proportion of the target were killed?
  • Was religion causally crucial?
  • If the context was changed to a more modern era, would there have been much more widespread destruction?

Yet I have shown, I hope, that atheism wasn’t a central causal factor in the genocides of the twentieth century anyway; moreover, one could argue that religion did play an important causal role in many atrocities throughout history.

However, it is easy to scapegoat humans on account of singular ideas and factors. Life ain’t that simple. Things are complex; why people do things is a complex thing to tease apart. And, essentially, humans can be right bastards. Quite often the most obvious thing can be the overriding cause: humanity. Lust and greed for power, resources, and a distorted idea of utopia. It’s bleak, but potentially accurate, and it might even get atheism and religion off the hook. I said might.

  • Dave Murphy

    David Cameron claims to be a practising Christian

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/david-cameron/10232054/David-Cameron-on-Jesus-pancakes-and-Sunday-mornings.html

    http://www.christian.org.uk/news/david-cameron-i-have-faith-and-it-is-important/

    Iain Duncan Smith also claims to be a christian and has presided over one of the most venomous attacks on the poor and disadvantaged the UK has seen :/

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Before he came to power he claimed his faith “comes and goes”. In other words, comes when it is electorally needed, but effectively goes on a day to day basis.

      No, he’s an atheist.

      • Adam Lewis

        I agree that going into a church no more makes a man a Christian than walking into a garage would make him a mechanic. Recent events and P.R. photos, P.R. being something David Cameron should get right do indicate that he is ready to “Do God”. No, he’s not an atheist, he’s a Deist at the very least and probably an Anglican like he says he is. Granted this is a big change on the picture he has been giving up until now. It’s a surprise to me and makes me think about his motives. Could it have anything to do with Scotland or maybe next years general election? For the moment I shall take him at his word.

        http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/apr/16/david-cameron-evangelical-about-christian-faith

  • dadsa

    This was greatly appreciated! You do not know how many times people like William Lane Craig have said that without god everything is permissible, and then they proceed to point towards the communist revolutions as proof.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Cheers! It is a ubiquitous claim and so I thought I’d better commit something to writing for the sake of posterity.

  • http://iamchristianiamanatheist.blogspot.kr/ iamanatheistandthisiswhy

    Very nice post, its a question that comes up so often and I will surely use it as a resource.

    On a side note regarding the abrahamic laws the one that confounds me is this “If a man or woman “lie with a beast” both the person and the poor animal are to be killed.” What did the poor animal do?

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Thanks for the kudos.

      Well, you know, that nasty animal was, like, an … animal.

      Ooh, so evil!

  • Jonathan Davis

    This is a nice piece, and I’m glad you wrote it so that it is on the record and searchable. However, if I may be uncharitable to your intended audience for a moment, I feel that this piece that is too long and abstract in its arguments to land solidly on the audience who needs it most. I think that is mostly an issue with the facts themselves. The truth is subtle here, and it requires the reader to try to understand it. Most people who need to hear this are not interested in understanding such truths, especially when it might rob them of their favorite anti-atheist tropes.

    I don’t have a solution to suggest for that particular problem, except that it might be beneficial to create a short, short TL;DR version with bullet points referencing the larger piece.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Thanks for the feedback, Jonathan. I take that on board – damned if you do, damned if you don’t. After all, without sources and references, one gets accused of assertion.

      That said, I think I’ll do a pared down version for easy digestion!

  • Peter

    It’s interesting that when Hitler was choir boy in the Catholic Church in Linz (I believe) the church was named for a saint whose name I also forget but I could get the details if necessary. Anyway, in that church was a statue of that Saint and he is standing on a bronze circle within which is a Swastika. The Catholics do indoctrinated them well. I have the photo taken by the US Third Army in my bulging files but you can probably find it online.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Mate, couldn’t find that image. Could you dig it out, possibly?

      • Peter

        Hi Jonathon:
        I couldn’t find the specific picture I talked about but it is very possible I was mistaken. (Oh, what a drag it is getting old). I’m a ww2 buff and I have a nasty habit of lending books to people which are never returned so I couldn’t find what I mentioned. However, a Google search did reveal that Hitler as a child did go to a monastery and it and the church were festooned with Swastikas. So, perhaps I’m a little mixed up. I blame it on this very harsh winter we’re having even by Canadian standards. That, and not enough beer. So the links below will give you an idea of where Hitler may have gotten his inspiration. Take care,
        Peter.

        Lamback
        scroll down to
        Lamback

        LAMBACH ABBEY BENEDICTINE AUSTRIA exposes the Third Reich swastika’s
        S-letter symbology

        There is much more out there.

        • Daniel Pose

          The site about LAMBACH ABBEY BENEDICTINE AUSTRIA exposes the Third Reich swastika’s S-letter symbology is fascinating in that it states that Hitler altered the swastika symbol (turning it 45 degrees from the horizontal and pointing it in the “S” letter direction) to symbolize his “socialism” (that is a discovery of the historian Dr. Rex Curry).

  • Void L. Walker

    Great article, Jon. This myth has been promulgated for so long that I cannot even remember a time when Christians didn’t try to play this worn out card. Very informative.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Thanks so much for your feedback on both accounts!

      If possible, could you put a review on amazon? Thanks sooo much if you could!

      • Void L. Walker

        God fucking dammit (sorry Luke!), Amazon is being a poop and isn’t letting me submit my review. I’m gonna try again in a bit, here’s hoping it works. One of the “reviews” I read was ill-informed and clearly written by someone who you offended :-p I really wanna give it the praise it deserves; a 5 star for sure.

        • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

          Thanks mate – never saw this comment. Yes, that review is by an ordained priest stalker who is banned from this and other blogs. He has posted bad reviews for all my books without having read them. He is SERIOUSLY unhinged.

          • Void L. Walker

            What did I get the sense that A: his critique was unwarranted and uninformed, and B: religiously motivated? ;-)

  • http://skepticalprobe.blogspot.co.uk Paul Thompson

    Stalin was brought up in the Christian Orthodox Church.

    At 16, he won a scholarship to attend The Orthodox Seminary School at Tbilisi where he trained for the priesthood.

    At 21, he failed to sit his final exam. It’s unclear why, it seems it was a dispute over his ability to pay for the exams.

    But the damage had been done. His formal Christian education had taught him that Genocide was an acceptable method to eliminate undesirables and dissenters.

    If Stalin had been brought up as a Secular Humanist the world could have been a much better place, however his education was based on the principles of obedience, punishment, killing and sacrifice as a means to bring about some Utopian restitution. He learned that the guy with the biggest stick gets to decide what is right.

    Stalin demanded absolute loyalty and obedience to the state. Dissent or loyalty to any other authority was ruthlessly suppressed. (Just like it is in the Bible).

    Stalin was a product of his formal Christian upbringing and education. His ideology regarding “Enemies of the State” have stark parallels in the Judeo/Christian beliefs regarding “Enemies of God”.

    • Karl Noel

      Must have missed the day of Sunday school where they taught genocide.

      Put less delicately, who the f@#$ are you people? We get that you’re filled with irrational, unrestrained contempt, if not all-out hatred, with regard to all things religious. Sad and scary, but ok, free country, little pink houses, etc.

      But how can you be so obtuse and insecure that you feel the need to attempt something so inane as blaming Stalin’s rampage on Greek Orthodoxy?

      • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

        Whilst my article is nuanced in blaming more complex scenarios, most Christians blame such things on a lack of belief in a deity. I don’t see you denigrating such simplistic inanity.

        • phil

          Interesting article, and I agree that situations are invariably not simplistic. The fact that the vast majority of atheists, Christians, Muslims, etc, are decent people who do not go around committing genocide suggests that there must always be something else in the motives of those that do. Many twelfth century crusaders, for example, took up the cross because it was a politically useful stance to take. And often, throughout history, the issue is about power and control, at least as much as religion. A lack of belief in a deity would not, on its own, make you want to kill, just as being a Christian does not make me want to kill.

          Yes, there are some verses in the Bible that have no relevance outside of the primitive culture in which they were written, but there also whole chapters and books which have raised and motivated individuals to the highest peaks of service and altruism. Your representation of the Christian God as a god who merely spews out petty rules about killing individuals is, itself, another example of simplistic inanity.

          • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

            Yes, the motivations for atrocious human behaviour are multifaceted indeed.

            I should have qualified ‘most Christians’ with ‘most Christians I argue with (on the internet)’. It is so prevalent a belief that Blackford included it as one of his great myths of atheism.

            However, the problem with your holy book is that, as you admit, there are passages glorifying genocide. You claim these are contextualisable, but this means, even if one CAN contextualise genocide into acceptability, that genocide, in certain contexts, can be acceptable.

            But this is a morally reprehensible position.

          • phil

            I am not seeking to suggest that genocide is ever acceptable. But to condemn every ancient tribe and civilisation as morally reprehensible doesn’t add much to the debate. Slaughtering people.outside of their group was something that happened in every culture, regardless of their religion.

            As you say, you and I, debating on the internet, are not typical of the wider population. A belief that is widespread in a highly atypical sample is not necessarily prevalent in the population, which is presumably why so many atheists end up arguing against a brand of Christianity that few churchgoers would recognise. In reality, Christians don’t pay much attention to Leviticus, except as history!

          • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

            HI there

            I think that there is a crucial debate to be had abut that: dropping some uncomfortable areas of the bible because they don’t fit with some aspect of life renders questionable on what (historical) basis you accept those which DO happen to correlate ok with one’s social outlook. Interpretation and cherry picking is certainly the weakness of liberal Christianity.

    • phil

      Seriously, Paul, you’re arguing that Stalin was a Christian whose religion caused him to commit genocide?

  • http://skepticalprobe.blogspot.co.uk Paul Thompson

    Incidentally, Pol Pot attended École Miche, a French Colonial Catholic School in Phnom Penh for 8 years.

    Are you noticing a pattern yet?

  • Skillet Rawks

    I am not an atheist, but an atheist friend steered me toward this article, and I wanted to comment a bit, particularly on the Hitler section, which I found a little suspect.

    I’m going to post a long bit here, and if you feel that my facts are mistaken, then please point them out. And, to be clear, I’m not here to argue that Hitler “was an atheist” or that atheism “caused” any of those atrocities. But perhaps a little more light can be shed on Hitler’s beliefs. I’ll present three problems that I found in the coverage of Hitler, as well as a other comments at the end.

    First, there is a timeline issue with Hitler’s religious beliefs. Generally speaking, in his younger years it seems like Hitler had some sort of spiritual belief system, likely based on some personal interpretation of Christianity. However, in his later years, it seems like he grew increasingly atheistic in his views. There is some evidence for both of these claims, so it is entirely possible to both claim that Hitler was religious and perhaps later, an atheist. As you said, issues are sometimes complex.

    The second issue regards the sources of what we know about Hitler’s political beliefs. Most of Hitler’s speeches were political propaganda, and at the time, the German public was something like 90% to 95% Christian. Hitler was a politician, and he had to run the “God and Country” line if he wanted to be popular. To do otherwise would be political suicide. To your credit, you allude to his need to “cozy up” to religious institutions for political needs, but I want to expand on this a little more. Hitler was also a cultural Christian, so he probably found using religious speech very easy. Also, for similar reasons, in Nazi Party propaganda, in speeches, in books, etc, there was little choice but to embrace Christianity. Even Hitler’s biography, in which he discusses Christianity, was written as a partial propaganda piece, designed to make him popular during a time when he was banned from making speeches. But, if you read the Table Talk tapes, you find a quote attributed directly to Hitler:

    “Science cannot lie, for it’s always striving, according to the momentary state of knowledge, to deduce what is true. When it makes a mistake, it does so in good faith. It’s Christianity that’s the liar. It’s in perpetual conflict with itself.” The transcript continues: “The best thing is to let Christianity die a natural death… The dogma of Christianity gets worn away before the advances of science. Religion will have to make more and more concessions. Gradually the myths crumble. (This is from the several Wiki articles on Hitler and his religious beliefs). Religious_views_of_Adoph_Hitler wiki article. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_views_of_Adolf_Hitler

    These words don’t sound like someone who was “hardly an atheist” – but, as I said, the timeline is an issue. The evidence that we have indicates that young Hitler was probably more religious than old Hitler.

    Moving on, if you read the Goebbels Diaries, and the memoirs of Speer, you find stuff like this: (Again, this is from the wiki article.)

    The biographer John Toland noted Hitler’s anticlericalism, but considered him still in “good standing” with that Church by 1941, while historians such as Ian Kershaw, Joachim Fest and Alan Bullock agree that Hitler was anti-Christian – a view evidenced by sources such as the Goebbels Diaries, the memoirs of Speer, and the transcripts edited by Martin Bormann contained within Hitler’s Table Talk.[8] Goebbels wrote in 1941 that Hitler “hates Christianity, because it has crippled all that is noble in humanity.”[9] Hitler repeatedly
    stated that Nazism was a secular ideology founded on science.[10]

    It’s easily possible that Hitler was privately an atheist (especially in the few years before his death) while he publicly embraced the church. Much the same way, he signed peace treaties with numerous nations, but later broke those treaties. His public word was worthless. He had a long-term plan to eradicate the Christian church in Germany (per the U.S. Office of Strategic Services).

    Overall, the choice is between speeches, books, etc (stuff designed for public consumption, often times, this material is literally Nazi propaganda), or quotes attributed directly to Hitler (the Table Talk tapes) or his friends (Goebbels and Speer). There is other evidence that I could discuss as well, but I think my point has been made. I would caution against citing Nazi propaganda as a reliable source regarding Hitler’s actual religious beliefs. Hitler even convinced the Catholic church that he was a religious guy, and then turned around and tried to shut the Chruch down, which I will discuss more in a moment.

    Overall, using pieces of speeches and Nazi propaganda or even inscriptions on equipment to show that Hitler was not an atheist, probably isn’t the best strategy. Culturally, he and the party HAD to embrace Christianity to be successful.

    Third, you cite Hitler as saying “‘Secular schools can never be tolerated’ because of their irreligious tendencies,” as evidence, but you ignore that this was a complete lie. He lied during the negotiations. Within six years (in 1939), the Nazi’s had closed all Catholic schools in Germany!
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reichskonkordat#Violations
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reichskonkordat

    Despite all the religious language in the party platform, in reality, the Nazi’s tried to shut down the church. The Hitler Youth weren’t even allowed to join religious organizations (or any organization for that matter) outside of the Hitler Youth because such organizations were seen as secondary and a threat to party loyalty. This is the Nazi Party’s actual behavior, regardless of the party’s official platform.

    To top that off, the only reason Hitler ever decided to persecute atheists was because this promise is what allowed him to get a treaty from the Catholic church promising that German clergymen would not be as vocal in their criticism of Nazism. This persecution of atheism is one of the things the Catholic church cited in its reasoning for signing a a treaty with Germany. But, once he wrestled control away from Rome, he immediately started persecuting the Catholic church. The Nazi’s “persecution of atheists” (about 1.5% of the population, per the wiki article you cite above), was a decision made for propaganda purposes. That persecution was designed to appease the Catholic church and convince them to sign a treaty. Hitler was able to go to the church and say “Hey, you see, I’m out here being super-religious and fighting the good fight, you guys should sign a treaty with me.” To suggest that Hitler led his party to persecute atheists because he was anti-atheist doesn’t seem true in light of the personal things we know he said (the Table Talk tapes), the quotes from Speer and Goebbels (who knew Hitler personally), and the fact that he immediately started persecuting the church (a much greater threat to his power than atheism), immediately after the treaty was signed.

    There’s also the implication that Hitler was taught to hate Jews due to his youth as a Catholic. This isn’t the generally accepted theory on this. See here: Historian Richard J. Evans states that “historians now generally agree that his notorious, murderous anti-Semitism emerged well after Germany’s defeat [in World War I], as a product of the paranoid ‘stab-in-the-back’ explanation for the catastrophe”.[49] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adolf_Hitler#Early_adulthood_in_Vienna_and_Munich

    But, anyway, in my opinion, Hitler probably had some spiritual beliefs when he was younger, but seemed to embrace atheism as he aged. It’s probably possible to build a strong case either way, and depending on what time period you focus on, either could easily be true. I’m not saying that “Hitler was an atheist,” but there is evidence to support such a claim, especially the Table Talk tapes in which he refers to religion as a “myth”. If I remember correctly, a well-respected biography of Stalin also backs up this claim on a separate occasion, that Hitler told Stalin in private that he agreed that religion as a “myth”, despite his criticism of communism.

    Either way, I agree with the sentiment that atheism was not necessarily the “cause” of these atrocities, but there is a strong association there. One of the results of these dictatorships was (or would have been) the destruction of organized religion. That is, state-sponsored atheism would have been the result, or was the result, of these dictatorships. Hence, the association exists, and I think it was rightfully earned. Now, perhaps this is seen as an unfair association by atheists, but I would suggest that many of the negative associations that religious people deal with are unfair as well. It’s part of the territory when entering into these sort of talks.

    In the end, your last paragraph seems to sum things up more clearly, humans often have tendencies to be barbaric, regardless of their religious faith (or lack thereof).

    I apologize if any of my language comes off as overly strong – my intention is not to offend – but there does seem to be evidence that Hitler dabbled in atheism (at the very least, in his later years) and that the Nazi’s, despite their party platform, had no problem persecuting religious institutions.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Hi there,
      Thanks for this interesting comment. Lost to talk about so I might make a new post of it. There is definitely some agreement here, though also some questions raised. Russell Blackford gives a really good chapter on this in 50 Great Myths of Atheism (separate from his one on atrocities which I referenced in the article above).

      I do take the point of making conclusions of people’s lives, lives which change, based largely on one moment. I will get round to editing the above to reflect that.

      Cheers

  • Adam Lewis

    Hi Johno, I cannot disagree or query anything in your post. Actually I really like this statement ‘Things are complex; why people do things is a complex thing to tease apart’ I am not an apologist for either Christianity or Catholicism. I buried my hatchet for Catholicism many years ago. I’m asking the question of ‘did Pope Pius not do the best he possibly could or was he given a Poison Chalice of which he made the best. Here is some more information via a quote from ‘The Last Pope’ by John Hogue:

    Pius is the
    compassionate holy man who gave all the Church could spare to war relief
    through the Pontifical Aid Commission. One saw him in dusty and bloodstained
    robes, administering last rites to dying civilians after an Allied bombing raid
    on Rome in 1944. He is also the Holy Father
    who publicly praised the soldiers of the Third Reich for their invasion of Russia. He is the pontiff who managed to
    save an estimated 400,000 Jews from the gas chambers, but never officially or
    publicly condemned the slaughter of six million Jews. He is fondly remembered
    by the Jewish community of Rome for harbouring hundreds of its citizens
    within the walls of the Vatican. This is the same man who after the
    war would use the Vatican’s properties to hide hundreds of
    Nazi war criminals from judgement at Nuremberg for their crimes against
    humanity.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Thanks for the comment, though I would disagree vehemently with the notion that he gave all the Church could spare. That is not even remotely believable or true.

      • Adam Lewis

        Ok.

  • Eric Breaux
    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      You obviously didn’t get this article or its implications.

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  • Jonas Oblouk

    Religion or not, the greatest evil is usually exercised by men with great charisma, intelligence and a very warped sense of morality. The Bible states that the law (understanding of right and wrong) is born into us. Clearly, for those whom it is not “born into”, they have used the Bible and other religions to give excuse and influence to get others to commit great acts of evil along with them.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Well said.

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