Mass Murder and Atheism

(Redated post originally published on 16 August 2012)

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between religion and morality again. I recently read yet another editorial that blames atheism for the mass slaughters committed by Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung, and so forth.

They have a point. While it is entirely debatable whether Hitler was an atheist—I tend to think the evidence indicates that Hitler believed in some sort of non-Christian god—I’m not aware of a good reason for doubting that the other individuals were, in fact, atheists. Even if we exclude Hitler, therefore, we are still left with a list of atheistic dictators who collectively murdered tens of millions of people. Theists are justified in mentioning that fact in response to atheists who have attacked religion because of atrocities committed by theists. Let us not, therefore, address concerns about the behavior of atheistic regimes too dismissively. These were men who believed that they answered to literally no one and who slaughtered millions of innocent people. The outrage (and fear) that good willed people feel at the very thought of such individuals is a natural human emotion. It therefore deserves to be taken seriously.

So as an atheist myself, what, then, do I have to say about these atrocities? To be frank, I can think of a lot of easier questions to tackle. My response is not going to even come close to the response it ought to be given the sheer magnitude of those atrocities, but it is the best I can manage to write.

Every atheist I have ever met condemns those atrocities as moral abominations. Indeed, I think if you asked the average atheist if they condemned the behavior, the answer would be not only “Yes” but “Yes, of course!” Because this answer would seem so obvious to atheists, I think atheists tend to forget to actually make their feelings on the matter explicitly known. Yet to merely say that the actions of those dictators were wrong seems like a massive understatement. I think I can speak of behalf of all good-willed atheists when I say that I (we) feel terrible about what those atheistic dictators did. When I think about the scale of the tragedies inflicted by these monsters, my knee-jerk reaction is to feel angry. I wish they received the punishment they deserved.

While I obviously cannot undo the past or prevent atrocities by future totalitarian regimes, one thing that I can do is to promote freethought. This is relevant, since freethought and totalitarianism are at odds with one another. (By definition, freethinkers are committed to forming opinions independently of tradition or emotion.) Indeed, it is striking just how much these dictators had to suppress independent thought in order to maintain their totalitarian control.

Everything I have written above was intended to address the perfectly understandable emotions that many people experience when they consider the actions of atheistic regimes. But what about their philosophical significance? Does the behavior of 20th-century atheistic regimes somehow refute atheism? Unless there is good reason to link their behavior with their atheism, the answer would have to be “no.” To paraphrase a point made Julian Baggini, “The fact that 20th century totalitarian regimes were atheistic is no more reason to think that atheism is evil than the fact that Hitler was a vegetarian is a good reason to suppose that all vegetarians are Nazis.”

In fact, contrary to what some critics of atheism assert, there is good reason to believe that mass murder is not the consequence of atheism. First, atheism, as opposed to materialism, does not entail an ontological thesis about the nonexistence of moral facts. (In other words, the existence of moral facts is logically compatible with the nonexistence of God.) Second, atheism does not entail the denial of any normative ethical theory except for those theories, such as various versions of the divine command theory, that explicitly appeal to God. (In other words, atheism is logically compatible with ethical theories that make mass murder wrong.) Third, atheism was never cited by atheistic regimes as the justification for their actions. Fourth, again paraphrasing Baggini, “The mere existence of millions of atheists in Western democracies who have no truck with totalitarian regimes shows that there is no essential link between atheism and condoning mass murder.”

This leads to my final point. For purposes of this essay, we can divide atheists into two groups: dogmatic and freethinking. Freethinking atheists are atheists who arrive at the conclusion that atheism is true, independently of authority and dogma; dogmatic atheists are atheists who don’t. Atheistic dictators who rely upon the authority (and force) of the government, rather than persuasion, to enforce certain points of view are not freethinkers, but dogmatists. By contrast, freethinking atheists have not committed atrocities. And all of the major atheistic organizations in the English-speaking world are committed to freethought.

Does the behavior of 20th century atheistic dictators show that atheists can be evil? Clearly, the answer is yes. Is citing that behavior a relevant response to atheists who claim that religion is responsible for historical atrocities? Again, I would say yes. Does their behavior show that mass murder is a logical consequence of atheism, much less freethinking atheism? No, it does not even come close to that.