Murderous Anti-theism: A Further Response to John Mark N. Reynolds

(Redated post originally published on 1 May 2015)

John Mark N. Reynolds, Provost of Houston Baptist University has written a lengthy reaction to criticisms of his earlier blog post claiming that anti-theism is the murderous force behind communism. I and Bob Seidensticker criticized his earlier essay. Reynolds’ more recent piece is, as I say, a reaction to those and perhaps other criticisms. Though it is a reaction, it is not really a response since he does not address his critics by name or quote from our posts. Consequently, it is not always easy to see just when or whether he is addressing our particular points. Therefore, instead of addressing what I think are rebuttals, I will just reiterate his claim as presented in his later post and state why I still find his claim entirely unpersuasive.

Reynolds says that his claim is this:

“…in all human history any anti-theists who have formed a mass political movement and gained power have been that horrific. This is an odd fact and must be explained. Of course, saying anti-theism caused all horrors in any state is wrong. I will be content to say that anti-theism caused only those horrors in states run by anti-theists which the anti-theists said were motivated by anti-theism!”

But if all that Reynolds is saying is that anti-theism was responsible only for those evils that the perpetrators admitted were so motivated, then we have been at cross-purposes. I fully agree that communist states were anti-theistic and that anti-theism was an integral part of communist doctrine. Also, as I said in my previous post, religious people were persecuted in communist societies, explicitly because of their religious beliefs. If this is Reynolds’ claim, then we are in full agreement. I would even go further and say that any officially anti-theistic government is intrinsically bad. For a government to adopt anti-theism as a policy is per se oppressive, even if it is not followed by outright persecution. To declare that theistic belief is officially disapproved is, in itself, an expression of intolerance, fully as offensive as if a state were to endorse theism and officially disapprove of atheism. A state should be secular, that is neutral on religion (or irreligion), and not officially endorse (or oppose) any species of belief or unbelief.

However, Reynolds often seems to be making a much stronger claim than the above quote indicates. He appears to say that it is their anti-theism that made communist regimes so particularly oppressive and violent not communism per se, or any other aspect of communist governments, such as their despotic nature. Again and again in this post and the previous one, Reynolds says that whenever antitheism has become a mass movement and taken over a nation, it has resulted in a nightmare society that engaged in mass murder and oppression. He then attempts to debunk every other possible explanation of the crimes of anti-theist regimes.

This approach is fundamentally wrongheaded, and its fallaciousness is illustrated by an example Reynolds gives. He shows a church that was destroyed by Soviet communists and asks, “Why blow up this church? Communism or anti-theism?” However, this is like asking “What led to the Holocaust? Nazism or anti-Semitism?” Or you might as well ask “Is John Mark N. Reynolds a Christian or a theist?” Reynolds implies that the answer has to be one or the other, but, because one alternative entails the other (all Soviets were anti-theists), the answer obviously has to be “both /and” instead of “either/or.” When A entails B it is literally senseless to demand a choice between one and the other. In other words, Reynolds’ question is a blatant example of a false dichotomy.

The correct question to ask is this: Granted that communist regimes were anti-theistic, why was their anti-theism so virulent and vicious? Why did it issue in active persecution? Reynolds admits that many anti-theists, though they dislike theism, do not advocate persecution. So, what made the Soviets or the Maoists so much more vicious?

The short answer is that communism was intolerant of opposing beliefs for the same reason that the medieval Church was intolerant of opposing beliefs: Like the Church, Communist ideology claimed to possess the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Every opposing claim was not only a lie, but a damned lie, a lie so manifestly false that it could not be blamelessly believed. When a system, whether it is theistic or atheistic, becomes a total system, the all-encompassing, absolute, and certain truth, then it cannot regard any dissent as harmless. All disagreement is intolerable. The slightest deviation from orthodoxy is like a cancer that threatens to grow and metastasize until it is an unstoppable and fatal force. Therefore, heterodoxy must be hunted down and snuffed out. The Church did it with the Holy Inquisition. The Soviet Union did it with the NKVD.

An absolute conviction of rightness and certainty, combined with longstanding institutional support is what makes for an inquisition, as Collen Murphy observes in his excellent recent study, God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). And inquisitions are not a thing of the past:

“Call it the inquisitorial impulse. It springs from certainty—from unswerving confidence in the rightness of one’s cause. But conviction alone is never enough. What separates an inquisition from other forms of intolerance is its staying power. It receives institutional support—creating its own or relying on what exists. It goes on and on. Today, the basic elements that can sustain an inquisition—bureaucracy, communications, the tools of surveillance and censorship—are more prevalent and entrenched, by many orders of magnitude, than they were in the days of Gregory IX or Tomás de Torquemada (233).”

Or, in the words of Mel Brooks, “The Inquisition, what a show! I know your wishin’ that we would go, but the Inquisition’s here and it’s here to stay!”

To end on a positive note: John Mark N. Reynolds and I agree about far more than we disagree. It would be good if atheists and Christians could join their voices more often in condemnation of sectarian oppression wherever it occurs.