Not long ago, a denizen of one of these internet sites wheeled out the old conservative canard, to the effect that the worst mass murders and crimes in human history were the work of atheists: Hitler, Mao, blah blah blah. The more atheists come out of the shadows, the more we are going to have this flung in our faces. I have heard this nonsense a number of times, so I decided it was time to stomp this fallacy dead. This is a lengthy piece, because there are six different ways that these arguments are just plain stupid. Here’s the short version first.
First, although Christians claim that Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao were atheist mass murderers, three of the four actually had firm roots in traditional religion, and all four of them committed mass murder for political and economic reasons, not religious reasons – because religion was never a serious threat to any of them. And all four of them killed a lot of atheists – Hitler bragged about crushing the atheists. So the phrase “atheist genocide” is a load of hogwash.
Second, the big mass murders were committed over and over in history by religious people, both in massive genocides such as the hundred million killed during the Christian conquest of the Americas, and in religious wars such as the Crusades, and all the killing over the fate of Israel. And in decades of terrorism. And inevitably the arch-criminals who committed these acts specified that they were fulfilling God’s will. Atheists are not inclined to such nonsense.
Third, religious people commit mass murder because their holy books tell them to. There is no such atheist book telling atheists to kill in the millions. And atheists will never follow a book, an author, or a doctrine so blindly that they will kill for them.
Fourth, religious people also have a long history of persecuting people short of murder, a tradition that continues in America today, to include their jihad against the rights of women and gays. The “militant atheists” preach scary stuff like tolerance and minding your own business and using your brain.
Fifth, morality doesn’t come from religion: morality was defined by early human communities which the monotheistic God People later bragged about exterminating.
Sixth, religious people have worked tirelessly to retard the forward march of humanity and oppress anyone who disagrees with them; nonbelievers have been at the forefront of the march of mankind, in science and philosophy and art and economics.
So let’s start with Hitler’s “atheist genocide”.
Hitler was actually quite religious. He went to a monastery school, sang in the choir, and as a child pretended to be a priest, even conducting mock ceremonies and making religious sermons. For quite some time he gave serious thought to becoming a priest. Although he attacked Christian churches for being insufficiently anti-Semitic and for interfering with his work, he remained a Catholic all his life. Hitler believed in God, and specifically he believed in a God active in men’s lives. He compared the rise of Nazism to the rise of Christianity as a state religion in ancient Rome. He wanted to unite Germany’s Protestants under a religious banner that rejected the Jewish roots of Christianity, calling it “positive Christianity”. As he was collecting is thoughts for the mass of ideological precepts that would become his core philosophical work, Mein Kampf, he gave a speech expressing his reverence for Jesus as a man who rejected the “Jewish poison” – “My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and savior as a fighter.”
Direct quotes from the Fuehrer:
“I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”
Christian churches are "essential elements for safeguarding the soul of the German people."
“We hold the spiritual forces of Christianity to be indispensable elements in the moral uplift of most of the German people."
"I believe in God, and I am convinced that He will not desert 67 million Germans who have worked so hard to regain their rightful position in the world."
“We have undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out."
“I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so.”
“We were convinced that the people needs and requires this faith.”
And anyone who argues the “Hitler = atheist” line, is ignoring the fact that Hitler repeatedly refuted charges that Nazism was anti-Christian; he lumped in the atheists with communists and criminals, and rejected nonreligious schooling for children. When some Nazi members began quitting the church, Hitler ordered his top lieutenants to remain in the church.
When Hitler killed people off, it was because he saw them as enemies of the state, not because of religion. He killed the Jews because he thought they were a political and economic threat to Germany, and Jews were only a portion of his target list. He also killed others who were seen as political and social threats, not religious enemies: other non-German ethnic groups, gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally handicapped, political opponents. Hitler’s siege of Leningrad, just by itself, killed almost as many people as the Jewish Holocaust did, and religion had nothing to do with it. In fact a lot of the people he killed all along the Russian front – twenty million of them -- were atheists. And incidentally, anyone who argues that Hitler was a liberal should look at the millions of liberals, socialists and communists he also killed.
Mao paid lip service to the Leninist attitude toward religion, but betrayed his true beliefs in his written works, which were loaded with Confucianist and Taoist ideas. Mao made little effort to persecute religious believers because religion was not a big deal in 20th-century China, the way it was in the Christian and Muslim worlds. There was virtually no religious fervor in China, and Mao didn’t care about religion. Mao’s great massacres happened in the 1950s and 1960s for political and economic reasons, not religious reasons – he wanted to exterminate political threats, and he had no clue how to run an economy. The puny crackdowns on religion in China only came after the Chinese government had abandoned Mao’s hardcore Leninist stance, in the last decade or two, and the government has pursued these crackdowns not for philosophical reasons, but because the groups involves pose political threats: the Muslims in restless Xinjiang, the monks in Tibet, the Catholics who answer to a foreign head of state, and Falun Gong because it got to be too big, too powerful, and too independent of the state.
Stalin’s position on religion was entirely dependent on political expediency. He originally persecuted the Christian churches, but later allowed the church to be revived as a political organization so as to help with the war effort, and he also supported Muslim separatists so they could cause trouble for the Chinese government, which had not yet been taken over by the Communists. Like Mao, Stalin killed millions for reasons having nothing to do with religion, mostly because he was wiping out enemies – kulaks, non-Russian minorities, real or imagined traitors – or because his ignorance of economic reality caused catastrophic famines.
Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were actually steeped in Buddhist tradition. Pol Pot’s outrages also had nothing to do with religion: he went after ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese, and anyone with an education, and anyone who thought Pol Pot’s ideas were crazy – a long list. And, as was the case in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China, a lot of the damage in Cambodia stemmed from the fact that Pol Pot was clueless no how to run an economy: he wanted to destroy urban Cambodia and drag the country back to its agrarian roots. And succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings.
Now, let’s look at all of the killing done by religious people, in God’s name, allegedly in fulfillment of God’s will. Christians did by far the most damage, killing 100 million during the colonization of the Americas, to include God-driven “Manifest Destiny” as Uncle Sam exterminated the Native Americans. Plus two million dead during the enslavement of Africans by Bible-wielding Europeans. Almost a million in Rwanda. Thousands in the Phillippines, by the U.S. military. Thousands of Bosnians and Croats. Thousands in the inquisitions. And so on and so on.
On the Muslim side, uncounted victims killed in the Islamic invasions following the rise of Muhammad, spreading from Spain to the Phillippines and from the Balkans to deepest Africa. One million for the Hazaras, Shia Muslims, in Afghanistan. A million Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians, killed by the Ottomans. A million in Bangladesh. A million in Sudan. A hundred thousand Kurds. Religion also played a part in the Nigerian civil war which killed two million. And of course the endless waves of Muslim terrorism.
Much of history’s bloodshed occurred when one side in a conflict clearly had the upper hand against the other, but plenty of people also died in the more evenly-matched conflicts. A million in the Crusades. Five million in the Thirty Years’ War which was driven by religion. Three million in the French religious wars. Two hundred thousand in the religious wars in Lebanon. Pakistan versus India. Israel versus the Muslims. The Irish Catholics and Protestants. Sunni versus Shia.
The key difference here, is that the mass murders in the name of religion, really were in the name of religion: there were no murders in the name of atheism. This is what happens, when you assume that the sins of one alleged atheist can be imputed to all atheists everywhere, that the crimes of an insane Russian ruler eighty years ago can be flung in the face of the local atheist kid who drives the glee club to the old folks’ home. You play that game, and nonbelievers can do the same thing -- hold your local Baptists and Lutherans responsible for everything from the Inquisition to Vlad the Impaler. Lumping all adherents of a belief system into one lump and holding everyone responsible for the offense of the individuals, has a handy name: bigotry. Dishonest bigotry to boot.
All of this murder by religious people is unsurprising, given the frankly genocidal nature of the Bible and the Qur’an. The Qur’an explicitly orders Muslims to declare war on non-Muslims until they submit to Allah, or die. The Bible states that as soon as the Israelites freed themselves from enslavement in Egypt and arrive in the Holy Land, they exterminated all non-Jews through the end of the Torah and into the Book of Joshua, all with God’s explicit approval. And the sad part is that historically, it never happened: the Jewish priests who wrote those texts knew the Israelites hadn’t committed genocide, but they wanted everybody to think they had. In the eyes of religious people, genocide against unbelievers is totally okay. All to glorify God.
Needless to say, there is no atheist book of that kind, telling atheists to take up the sword and kill all the Christians. If any atheist were to write such a volume, the other atheists would condemn the book and write off its author as insane.
And no, Das Kapital and the Communist Manifesto don’t count. They had almost nothing to say about religion, other than to point out religion as a mere symptom of an oppressed people, and a form of protest by the poor. Marx, in his writings, did not call on atheists to kill in the thousands: again, you’re thinking of the Bible and the Qur’an.
And by the way, religious communist groups have existed for the entire history of communism, in part because the way Jesus lived his life, and advised others to live, was quite close to the communist ideal, the rejection of possessions and wealth. This wouldn’t be the case if the world’s Marxists were hell-bent on exterminating religion. Even in the bad old days of the Soviet Union, one third of the Soviet people believed in God.
When religious people aren’t abrogating the rights of people they disagree with by killing them, then they resort to other methods for inflicting upon innocent bystanders their own quaint views on freedom, oppression, rights, injustice. The religious people have been working to shove religious views into politics and law and science and medicine, to take away the rights of women, gays and lesbians, to chase nonconformists out of our high schools, to ram their views down everyone else’s throats in the form of legislation. Throwing bricks at women’s clinics, screaming “God hates fags” at military funerals, phoning in death threats against liberal legislators, driving atheist politicians out of the political arena, declaring war on the Boy Scouts for being insufficiently hateful, peddling fear and hate and intolerance. They are also working hand in hand with the conservative zealots who have been working to destroy our economy just to make Obama look bad, take away union rights, take away voting rights, wreck the workings of Congress, keep Hispanics as second-class citizens. Around the globe they are killing atheists across the Muslim world, trying to force European and Latin American governments to turn Catholic doctrine into law, taking over family law not only in Muslim countries but even in Israel, and launching riots when some Danish guy draws a picture of Muhammad. And screaming that anyone who disagrees with them is declaring war on them.
This of course is not new. Religion has been a key tool for oppressive rulers over the centuries. Arguably the most oppressive political system in human civilization, European feudalism, attacked the most advanced society on earth, Roman Europe, and threw a blanket of ignorance and armed oppression over it for a thousand years. And the knights and barons who inflicted this misery upon Europe worked hand in glove with Christianity. Priests told their flocks that the ruling knights had every right to oppress them and steal everything that wasn’t nailed down and rape their daughters, and in return the knights made the priests very rich as they abjectly betrayed their flocks to glorified slavery. Be good slaves in this life and sit at the feet of Jesus in the next.
That is the religious track record on oppression. Atheists? The Jesus people have been trying to portray atheists as scary militants, which is almost as silly as their other parallel effort, trying to persuade America that gays are scary sociopaths hell-bent on raping your son and marrying your dog (or, worse, redecorating your house – window treatments!). But atheists preach love and tolerance and reason and logic. They do good charitable work in the world, contrary to what cheap-shot artist Joe Klein believes, and they don’t hurt anybody or anything. Oppression is not their thing and never will be.
Christians have also been arguing that morality only comes from religion and that atheists have no moral compass. Um, wrong. Human moral values pre-date not only the Christians but also the Jews. Moral values were developed by the Bronze Age and Iron Age tribesmen who came before the Jews. The guys who came up with the moral compass of western civilization, are actually the tribes that the forefathers of the three monotheistic religions -- Moses and Joshua – were trying to kill off: if they had succeeded in exterminating not only those tribal peoples but also their ideas, all of the underpinnings of moral belief in western civilization could have been wiped out. Therefore, the biggest potential threat to morality was actually….the people who founded our Abrahamic religions.
Also, as I’ve noted earlier, the argument that religion is the source and fount of all morality starts to wobble a bit, when you actually read the Bible. The early books establishing Biblical morality are wildly uneven, going on and on for pages about all the animals you can’t eat, and the specifications for the gorgeous temple and the rich offerings Jews must give to the priests, but saying nothing – nothing! – about marriage between one and one woman, possibly because the great men of that day all had multiple wives. And then the book goes on to condone genocide, and ethnic cleansing, and selling your daughter into slavery, and rape as a war tactic, and beating uppity women and children to death. Lots of “crimes” calling for a brutal death by stoning. And then proceeds to describe Biblical patriarchs who tried to kill their children, repeatedly handed their female relatives over to others to be raped, and and killed, stole, and cheated, and committed incest. All with God’s approval. That’s Biblical morality.
So while the Jesus people have given us centuries of oppression and resisted the forward march of civilization, what have the nonbelievers given us?
Western civilization, that’s what. Science, technology, the arts, philosophy, modern economics. People who don’t buy the God stuff include Zuckerberg and Gates and Buffett. Confucius, Laozi and Kant. The more intelligent of the Greek philosophers. Clarence Darrow. People who fought for your rights like Elizabeth Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Betty Friedan, Andrei Sakharov, and the founder of Planned Parenthood.
People who don’t buy the Jesus stuff made the original discoveries for DNA, hydrogen, the Big Bang, the first television tube, the telephone, the transistor, Boolean algebra, nylon, evolution, subatomic particles, radioactivity, quantum mechanics, the theory of relativity, holograms, surgical sterilization and anesthetics, free-market capitalist theory and Ricardian theory, galactic astronomy, a cholera therapy that saved 50 million lives, the microchip, statistical analysis, marrow transplants to cure leukemia, cybernetics, the typhus vaccine, blood transfusion, Pavlovian conditioning, Turing computer theory, cloning, actuarial theory, and a little thing called the World Wide Web.
The nonbelievers include Kafka, Pushkin, Gorky, Keats, Mencken, Nabokov, Mahler, Munch, Brahms, Chaplin, Copland, O’Neill, Shelley, Dali, Godard, Proust, Steinbeck, Conrad, Eliot, Maugham, Arthur Miller, Pinter, Sartre, Hemingway, Ibsen, Twain, Brecht, Chekov, Schubert, Van Gogh, Matisse, Monet, Schumann, Bergman, Shaw, Vidal, Vonnegut, HG Wells, Virginia Woolf, Berlin, Zola, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the creators of Sherlock Holmes, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Stranger, the Forsytes, Catch-22, Stranger In a Strange Land, Brave New World, Space Odyssey, Raisin in the Sun, and Frankenstein.
So there you go. Mass murder, religious warfare, terrorism, oppression and resistance to new ideas are overwhelmingly the work of the God People, because their Good Books tell them to do so. Nonbelievers are the thinkers and builders and artists who move humanity forward. And human morality happens in spite of religion, not because of it.