Atheist Atrocities?

I notice that some comments on recent posts have resurrected the old canard about atheism being responsible for some of history’s worst atrocities. The argument goes like this: Communists committed horrible atrocities. Communits were atheists. Therefore atheism is to blame for horrible atrocities. Prof. Alister McGrath of Oxford Univbersity makes this claim in his book The Twilight of Atheism, Doubleday, 2004. I responded to it at length in my essay “Atheism: Twilight or Dawn?” in The Future of Atheism, edited by Robert B. Stewart, Fortress Press, 2008. Below is a long quote from my essay (pp. 54-57).

According to McGrath’s analysis…atheism’s partnership with Marxism became a deal with the devil when communism, and hence atheism, became the established, and exclusive, ideology of repressive regimes:

“The appeal of atheism to generations lay in its offer of liberation. It promised to liberate the enslaved and exploited masses from their cruel oppression by the state and church. Yet wherever atheism became the establishment, it demonstrated a ruthlessness and lack of toleration that destroyed its credentials as a liberator. The Promethean liberator had turned nasty (McGrath, 2004b p. 234).”

Indeed, McGrath says, the collapse of Soviet communism forced the world to confront the genuine nastiness of atheism:

“The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 did more than allow inhabitants of the Soviet bloc access to the West; it also paved the way for Western scholars to inspect the archives of the Soviet Union and its allies. The opening of the Soviet archives led to revelations that ended any notion that atheism was a gracious, gentle, and generous world view…Communism was a ‘tragedy of planetary dimensions’ with a grand total of victims variously estimated…at 85 and 100 million—far in excess of those murdered under Nazism (McGrath, 2004b pp. 232-233).”

But, of course, precisely the same sort of argument could cite the actions of the 9/11 hijackers to discredit theism. The 9/11 hijackers were, to a man, devout theists, but the obvious reply would be that the impetus behind their atrocious acts was not theism per se, but their adherence to a particularly fanatical brand of Islamic fundamentalism. Precisely the same kind of retort could be given to McGrath’s argument. Unless he shows, which he hasn’t, that the communists committed their atrocities qua atheist, that is, that is was their atheism that inspired their murderous rancor, the argument fails. In fact, of course, Marxism/Leninism and Maoism were irrational ideologies that became objects of fanatical, indeed, “religious” devotion for many of their adherents. If theism can take on poisonous and destructive forms without thereby discrediting theistic belief in general, precisely the same should be said of atheism.

McGrath errs in identifying atheism as a “worldview.” From the mere fact that one is an atheist very little else can be inferred. Atheists can be political fascists, conservatives, libertarians, liberals, communitarians, anarchists, or radicals. Their philosophical views can be pragmatist, empiricist, rationalist, idealist, existentialist, postmodernist, feminist, or almost anything else. As cases in point, Antony Flew and Kai Nielsen have been two of the most outspoken atheists among recent analytical philosophers. Their critiques of theism often are nearly identical in content. Yet Flew was a staunch Thatcherite Tory and Nielsen is a dedicated Marxist. Atheism, whether it is taken as the claim that belief in God is false or incoherent or unjustified, just does not have sufficient content to constitute a worldview.

Naturalistic humanism is a worldview, and most present-day atheists are probably naturalistic humanists. Humanists claim no more affinity with Joseph Stalin than do Southern Baptists. Indeed, some of the most damning indictments of Stalinism were written by humanists such as George Orwell and atheists like Arthur Koestler. Bertrand Russell is just as emphatic in “Why I am not a Communist” as in “Why I am not a Christian.” Humanist intellectuals and activists have a long and honorable record of opposing dictatorships of the left and the right, standing against oppression whether conducted by ayatollahs or commissars. Christian churches, let us recall, have far too often winked at right-wing autocrats, just as long as they were friendly to the interests of the Church hierarchy. To mention just one of many possible examples, during his long dictatorship over Spain, Franco enjoyed the support, or at least the acquiescence, of the Roman Catholic Church…

Could Prof. McGrath respond with a tu quoque and argue that atheism…[has] a natural propensity to grow into intolerant and repressive forms? Roger Scruton, in a 1986 essay published in the Times Literary Supplement makes precisely this argument:

“It seems to me that the morally defective feature of the death camp—and of the totalitarian system which engenders it—is the impersonal, cynical and scientific approach to the victims. Systematic torture and murder become a bureaucratic task, for which no one is liable and for which no one is particularly to blame…I do not offer to prove, what nevertheless has been vividly impressed on me by my own study and experience, that this impersonal (and therefore ungovernable) evil is the true legacy of the naturalistic view of man. Those very philosophies which enjoin us to place man upon the throne from which God was taken away for burial, have been most influential in creating a new image of man as an accident of nature, to whom nothing is either forbidden or permitted by any power beyond himself. God is an illusion; so too is the divine spark in man (Scruton, 1986, p. 565).”

But respect for other persons does not arise from detection of some “divine spark,” whatever that might be, but from the experience of shared humanity. Recognition that another has thoughts, feelings, dreams, hopes, and fears like one’s own naturally promotes empathy towards that person, while campaigns of dehumanization, like that conducted against Jews in Nazi Germany or against the “Kulaks” in Stalinist Russia, almost always precede genocidal campaigns. In fact, the impersonal, reductive view of persons that characterizes totalitarianism is more reasonably seen as a pathological outgrowth of a religious rather than a humanistic worldview. Characteristic of totalitarianism is the exaltation of ideological purity and the enforcement of strict conformity in action and belief. But belief systems that insisted upon doctrinal purity, and enjoined obedience in thought, word, and deed did not enter the world with the rise of naturalism and humanism. Such systems are the legacy of belief in One God, One Creed, One Church, and One Law. Paganism had no concept of heresy or apostasy for the simple reason that it had no creed. A classical Greek could join any number of mystery cults without raising questions about his or her devotion to the recognized Olympian deities. Pagan Rome tolerated associations devoted to the worship of Isis, Mithras, Cybele, Jehovah, and–except for highly sporadic and often half-hearted persecutions–Christ.