Not this Again!

John Mark Reynolds, Provost of Houston Baptist University, has posted an essay reasserting the old canard that atheism is the cause of mass murder. Reynolds commits all the usual fallacies of those who make this claim. For instance, though he notes that correlation is not the same thing as cause, here is what he says in his opening paragraph:

Atheistic regimes killed millions in the last century. Nobody denies this fact, though some deny atheism had much to do with the murder…Yet there is decent reason to connect the atheism with the killing. Atheism as the dominant form of thought in a state correlates very neatly with mass murder.

The argument appears to be this: “Every officially atheistic regime was murderous. Therefore, atheism is a likely cause of the murderousness of those regimes.” Despite the later cautious qualification, this argument is placed front-and-center in the opening paragraph and is repeated several times in the essay. It is a worthless argument precisely because correlation is not causation. At one time, without exception, every Christian nation routinely practiced hideous forms of torture. Would it have been right to conclude that Christianity causes torture? Now, atheism might cause murder—and Christianity might cause torture. However, without further evidence establishing a cause and not merely a correlation, such arguments prove nothing. Does Reynolds provide such evidence?

Well, he recognizes that it is hard to hang tragic consequences on atheism per se, since atheism, by itself, is not an ideology or worldview, but simply the denial of the existence of a God or gods. Atheists have been political conservatives, liberals, radicals, and libertarians. Philosophical atheists have been existentialists, logical positivists, feminists, Marxists, pragmatists, and idealists. Atheism per se says little or nothing about how we are to conduct our lives or govern a society. Further, Reynolds admits that there are many friendly atheists who would never harbor a persecuting thought. So, he singles out not just atheism, but active antitheism as the culprit. The antitheists, says Reynolds, are the ones who, “…actively dislike and work against religion. These are the atheists that have proven dangerous in power and worrisome in civil society.” So, if your next-door neighbor is a friendly atheist, there is no need to worry that he will murder you in your sleep. However, if he is a truculent antitheist, bar your door!

There has never been a society that was just antitheist any more than there has been a society that was just theist and not any particular sort. Such antitheism has always been a corollary of an overarching ideology such as Marxism/Leninism (ML). ML was not just antitheism; it was an entire counter-religion, indeed, a darker reflection of Christianity itself. Bertrand Russell pointed out the parallels between Marxism and Christianity. ML had holy prophets, Marx and Engels. It had a savior, Lenin. It had inerrant holy scriptures, the writings of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. It had a College of Cardinals, the Politburo, and a pope, the Soviet leader. The Catholic Church had the Holy Inquisition to root out heresy; the Soviet Union had the NKVD. Like Christianity, ML had an eschatology. For Christianity it is the Second Coming of Christ; for communism it is the classless society.

Both Christianity and ML claim to possess the ultimate and final capital-T Truth—Truth that can be known with such certainty that unbelief is morally and intellectually reprehensible. Any religion, theistic or antitheistic, that makes such claims will incline towards intolerance and persecution. Further, like Christianity, ML was a totalizing, all-encompassing system that demanded the complete devotion of its followers and the exclusion of all other faiths. A true communist, like a true Christian, was supposed to be faithful in all things; even your deepest thoughts and feelings are to be disciplined so that they are brought into line with orthodoxy. Freedom of thought and conscience were vigorously suppressed in both systems. Among the many similarities between the Kremlin and the Vatican was the fact that each kept lists of prohibited books. “Thoughtcrime” was odious both to Torquemada and to Stalin.

Still, Reynolds insists that it was specifically the element of antitheism that imparted the particular murderousness to those communist regimes. What argument does he give? Reynolds says that the totalitarians first became atheists and later communists:

First, the atheists of Russia, China, North Korea, Cambodia, [and] Albania came to their atheism and then picked a social and economic system compatible with their general worldview. Individuals decided traditional religion was bunk and harmful and became atheists. They sought a worldview that would fit their newfound freedom.

There are several remarkable things about this passage. First, it is presented without any semblance of evidence or documentation. It makes a sweeping claim based, apparently, on absolutely nothing. Did Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, Kim Il-Sung, Pol Pot, and Enver Hoxha all, as a matter of biographical fact, first become zealous antitheists and then discover communism as the way of satisfying their antitheistic urges? Reynolds must have done a tremendous amount of scholarly digging to establish this surprising and little-known historical fact. Too bad he did not indicate some of his sources.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Reynolds is right and that all of the above totalitarians were vehement antitheists before they became communists. Does this show that their antitheism made them murderers? What would show that? Well, Reynolds says:

…atheism was used as a reason for persecution in all of these nations. When people tell you that you are being persecuted because you are religious, it creates a powerful presumption that religion is the reason you are being persecuted.

Once again, Reynolds’ claim must be based upon massive—but, alas, undocumented—scholarship that reveals facts unknown to other historians. Was the extirpation of religion the explicit justification given for Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward? What about the Ukrainian famine in the 1930’s or the Great Terror and purges of Stalin? Did Pravda announce that these were carried out in punishment of the religious convictions of the victims? Did antitheism motivate the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the subsequent partition of Poland? Were the Polish officers massacred in the Katyn Forest because of their Catholicism? Was antitheism the banner that flew over the killing fields of Cambodia? In actuality, there is no historical basis for saying that opposition to religion was the prime justification for the really infamous and heinous crimes and atrocities of communism, the ones that killed millions. If Reynolds is offering a revisionist history of those incidents he needs to provide substantial—or at least some—relevant evidence.

Under Stalin could you be sent to the Gulag for religious reasons? Sure. You could be sent to the Gulag for just about any reason. I once read about a worker on a collective farm who joked that the cows looked stupid. According to the story, he was denounced and given a ten-year sentence for demeaning Soviet agriculture. Any activity, statement, or belief judged anti-Soviet, whether religious or not, could get you shipped to the arctic to starve in a labor camp. People were certainly persecuted for their religious convictions. Likewise, geneticists who opposed Party-approved crackpot Trofim Lysenko were persecuted for their scientific beliefs. Composer Dmitri Shostakovich was threatened when his music did not meet Soviet standards. Handing out Bibles in Red Square would have gotten you in trouble, but so would distributing copies of The Wealth of Nations.

It appears, then, that Reynolds has given no historical evidence for singling out atheism, or even antitheism, as the only or even one of the main causes of the murderousness of communist regimes. Actually, the reason he seems to put so little effort into presenting credible historical evidence is that he thinks he knows a priori that antitheism is dangerous. What makes antitheism so dangerous is that, unlike Christianity, it creates its own values to serve its own purposes:

Christians are told to ‘love their enemies.’ Have they always done this? No. They have often failed, but their failure hits against an essential part of their belief system. Christians that kill or torture are denying part of Christianity. An antitheist creates his own values, so he can decide that theism is a serious enough mental illness to put theists into ‘remediation’ in mental hospitals. How many Christians were killed in psychiatric wards in atheistic states? Nobody is sure of the number, but it is in the thousands.

But this is just supporting one ancient canard with another, the old slander that atheists are free to create any values they find convenient and so face no genuine moral constraint. As Dostoevsky put it “If there is no God, then everything is allowed.” Actually, Dostoevsky had it exactly backwards. God is the greatest excuse for doing bad things that anyone has ever devised. If you want to hate some people, you can hate with a joyously clear conscience if you are sure that God hates them too. Over the ages Christians have been very adept at finding reasons for saying that God hates the same people they hate—heretics, infidels, gay people, etc. Reynolds does not approve; he says that “Christians that kill or torture are denying part of Christianity.” This is a laudable sentiment, but many of the most devout Christians would strongly disagree. Indeed, many would condemn Reynolds as a mushy sentimentalist and insist that the refusal to kill or torture in the name of Christ is profoundly anti-Christian. St. Augustine, for instance, was very clear that physical coercion should be used to compel heretics to return to the fold. Stalin would certainly have agreed with Augustine on this point.

At bottom, all efforts to tar atheism with the brush of communism are exercises in guilt by association: Communists were atheists. Communists were bad. Therefore, atheism is bad. A precisely analogous train of thought seems to occur to the deep thinkers of Al Qaida and ISIS: Crusaders were Christians. Crusaders were bad. Therefore, Christianity is bad. Biased thinking should be rejected whether it issues from a fanatical imam or from the distinguished provost of a university.