01 June 2012

7 Myths About New Atheists: Myth #4 – Atheists ignore the atrocities of "atheistic societies"

I briefly touched on this in the previous post in this series, but I want to expand on it a bit more, because it comes up fairly often. While Christianity is spread by peace and love these days, historically it's been spread primarily by tyranny, conquest and coercion. Were it not for the conquest and forced conversions of the Germanic peoples during the Saxon Wars, much of Europe would still be celebrating "Eostre" instead of "Easter". Were it not for Encomienda – the enslavement and conversion under threat of torture or death of Native Americans by the Spanish empire – Mexico wouldn't be a Spanish-speaking, primarily Catholic nation. Were it not for the Crusades, much of the West might be Muslim. Then there's stuff Christians did that was just senseless and cruel, like witch huntings and the Inquisition.

We tend to point out these things as examples of what happens in theocratic societies. When religion has free reign untempered by secular democracy, bad things happen. So the natural counter to this is to point out what believers have (in my experience) often described as "atheistic societies". Stalin, Mao, etc. Hitler and the Third Reich are often thrown in there, but Hitler was a devout Catholic who actually saw atheists as a threat, and Germany was overwhelmingly Protestant at the time. But Stalin was definitely an atheist, and Mao probably was (he was a Marxist). Both of them employed some economic and military policies that resulted in many millions of deaths. The death toll of the 20th Century atheists far eclipses the toll of history's religious atrocities... or does it?

I think it's first worth discussing what we mean by an "atheistic society". Because right now, much of Northern Europe and, to a lesser extent, Western Europe, are extremely secular, atheistic, and/or irreligious. I take most statistics with a grain of salt, because "non-religious" and "atheist" are too often conflated, but there's no denying that religion's hold on most of the modern Western world is pretty flimsy. Across the board, religious affiliation is on the decline in the industrialized world. In Asia, it's even worse for religion. In China, some 70% to 80% of the population is agnostic or atheist. Japan is about the same. It should go without saying that there is a big difference between people being forced out of churches by an autocratic government, and people freely leaving religion in democratic societies (and yes, China isn't exactly democratic, but people are for the most part free to practice their own religions).

It's then worth pointing out that atheism is not a dogma. It has no doctrines, no creeds, no holy books. It entails nothing. It's the outcome of a worldview rooted in evidentialism, not a worldview unto itself. It simply means that one does not believe in any gods. But to the theist, it's not that simple, because theists generally believe that certain ideas are inexorably linked with belief in God – ideas like equality, meaning, the value of human life, freedom, etc. etc. Now, I could take up several weeks worth of blog posts just tackling the philosophical side of those arguments, but I've pretty much already done that.

A younger, hunkier Joseph Stalin
Instead, I'm just going to point out the obvious: if it were true that atheism, or even simply the rejection of religion, entailed a rejection of all the values we hold dear, then all the aforementioned democratic countries would be in utter disrepair. They'd be violent, depraved hellholes while the United States would be sitting atop the world as some sort of beacon of enlightenment. But instead, they're some of the most peaceful, prosperous places on Earth. Moreover, if it were true that religious faith entailed all the values we hold dear, then religion wouldn't have spent most of its history being responsible for some of the most vile atrocities ever committed.

It's also worth pulling from Steven Pinker, and his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, which points out, without mountains of data, that we are actually living in the most peaceful era of human history. And while it's true that the 20th Century tyrants killed millions, if we examined the death toll not in absolute numbers but rather as a percentage of the world's population at the time (a far more accurate indicator of rates of violence), Stalin and Mao have nothing on the Crusades, Encomienda, the Saxon wars, witch hunts, and the Inquisition.

Lastly, the problem with such dictators is not that they were too reasonable, or that they didn't believe in supernatural beings running the universe, but that they were cults of personality that were as dogmatic as any religion. Sam Harris said it clearly:
People of faith often claim that the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were the inevitable product of unbelief. 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.

Myth #3
Myth #5

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