On "Atheistic societies"

Stop me if you've heard this one:
You know what happens when a society becomes atheistic? You get Stalin. You get Hitler. You get Mao. Death and despair and evil running rampant.The Crusades and Inquisition may have been bad, but they're nothing compared to the millions slaughtered by those atheists.
Some approximation of this argument has been floating around ever since atheists started pointing out all the ridiculous things that religious fanatics do, including but not limited to blowing people (and themselves) up. It's a colossally dumb argument which conveniently ignores a litany of facts about these dictators, about atheism, and about secular cultures.

The Hitler thing has pretty much been put to rest, and only a few ignoramuses still use the Third Reich as an argument against atheism. That's because Hitler was a Catholic, and it was the church's long history of antisemitism which undoubtedly influenced his contempt of the Jewish people. Hitler referenced his God, the Almighty Creator, and his Christian faith in several of his writings and speeches. German soldiers wore belts with the phrase "God with us" inscripted on them (in German, obviously). And moreover, Hitler outlawed the German Freethinkers League, which was Germany's largest organization of atheists, and turned their building into a Christian outreach center before beheading their leader. The whole "Hitler was an atheist" argument was even incisively lampooned by NonStampCollector. But please, no need to take my word for any of this – it's nothing a few minutes on Wikipedia won't clear up.

With Hitler squarely in the Jesus camp, that leaves us with everyone's favorite Marxists, Stalin and Mao. Christians love associating atheism with communism and evil murderous dictators, I imagine because it's a convenience distraction from the paucity of evidence for God's existence. According to Wikipedia,
Stalin followed the position adopted by Lenin that religion was an opiate that needed to be removed in order to construct the ideal communist society. To this end, his government promoted atheism through special atheistic education in schools, massive amounts of anti-religious propaganda, the antireligious work of public institutions (especially the Society of the Godless), discriminatory laws, and also a terror campaign against religious believers. By the late 1930s it had become dangerous to be publicly associated with religion.
Mao, like Stalin, was a Marxist whose policies resulted in millions of deaths, and (according to Wikipedia) he labeled religious leaders (among many others) "enemies of the people".

So let's examine the contention that these are examples of "atheistic societies" which demonstrate the horrors that await us if we cast aside Christian virtues.

Frame 1: Who they really were

It is true that Stalin and Mao were atheists. It is also true that Hitler was a self-professed* Christian. It's true that atheism is a part of the Marxist ideology to which Stalin and Mao subscribed, in which religion is derided as an opiate of the masses. It's also true that Hitler, the German people (by and large) and Nazi soldiers (by and large) were Christians who believed they were doing God's work. So if one can claim that atheism is the cause of Marxist-inspired tyranny, we can use the identical logic to conclude that Christianity is the cause of Nazism. Of course, neither position is true, for several reasons.

Atheism is not a doctrine. It is disbelief in gods. That's it. Nothing more about an individual's intellect or belief system can be positively discerned as an outcome of their atheism – only negatively discerned, i.e., what the nonbeliever doesn't believe in. Christianity is a doctrine, but its doctrine – belief in Christ – does little to inform us of one's interrelated beliefs, which vary widely among Christianity's 30,000+ denominations. Atheism may play a role in Marxism, but atheism has no intrinsic connection to Marxism; Christianity may have played a significant role in the antisemitism and ethnocentric nationalism that embodied Nazism, but Christianity has no intrinsic connection to Nazism. Most new atheists recognize this, which is why you don't hear them going around arguing that Christianity caused the Third Reich. Because it didn't. And this is precisely what Richard Dawkins means when he says that people like Stalin and Mao did not act in the name of atheism. They didn't, because atheism has no dogma or doctrine by which to inform one's actions.

In fact, this is a fine time for me to pull out one of my favorite Richard Dawkins quotes, from his book The Devil's Chaplain:
"My point is not that religion itself is the motivation for wars, murders and terrorist attacks, but that religion is the principal label, and the most dangerous one, by which a 'they' as opposed to a 'we' can be identified at all." 
Hilter, Stalin and Mao do share several traits: they were megalomaniacs and devout nationalists. Above all else, they preached the nobility of duty and servitude to one's country, to one's "own people". Much as Dawkins' above remark denotes the use of religion to separate people into in-groups and out-groups ("us" and "them"), dogmatic nationalism performs the same function. The ideologies of these dictators had nothing whatsoever to do with the virtues espoused by either modern "new atheists" or even humanists dating back to the Enlightenment – reason, evidence, rationality and science. Does anyone really believe that the problem with Stalin and Mao is that their megalomaniacal  nationalism was too reasonable?

Frame 2:  What secular cultures really are

The above illustrates the first distortion in the argument: that atheism leads to Marxist tyranny. The second distortion is the notion of what constitutes an "atheistic society".

It should go without saying that there is quite a difference between a people whose religious practices are systematically repressed by a tyrannical government and a people who shed religious beliefs and practices voluntarily. Stalin might have burned churches and instilled fear in the religious, but beliefs themselves are stronger than buildings and bullets, which is why Christianity thrives in Russia today.
True secular societies are the latter: those in which people freely choose to examine and disregard religious beliefs and practices. There are a large number of such secular nations, in which a majority of the population is non-religious (which includes agnostics). These include, but are not limited to:
  • United Kingdom
  • France
  • Germany
  • Sweden
  • Denmark
  • Canada
  • Belgium
  • Finland
  • Norway
  • Czech Republic
There are more, but the point should be clear. These are not destitute, corrupt cultures riddled with crime, poverty and illiteracy; they are, by and large, prosperous, peaceful and educated countries. Meanwhile, as Gallup statistics have recently demonstrated, nearly all the countries in which religion is thriving are the most impoverished and uneducated. (Contrary to the claims of certain Christian apologists, atheism is positively correlated with intelligence.)

In the United States, the highest per capita crime, the highest divorce and teen pregnancy rates, and the lowest education all occur in the most religious "red" or "Bible belt" states. The more secular, liberal "blue" states are by and large wealthier, better educated, and more peaceful.

Now because some fool will inevitably try to twist my argument, I have to take pains to point out that I am not claiming that these cultures are prosperous, peaceful and educated because they are secular; I am simply demonstrating that the argument that atheism leads to the moral decay of a society is wholly unfounded. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that atheism is detrimental to humanity. Megalomaniacal nationalist dictators, on the other hand....

*I say "self-professed" only to avoid any No True Scotsman rebuttals, in which some moron comes along claiming that Hitler was not a "true" Christian. It doesn't matter what anyone defines as a "true" Christian. What matters is that Hitler was a man of faith who believed he was doing God's work. 


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