bookmark_borderMass 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.

bookmark_borderDoes William Lane Craig Actually Believe in Evil?

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Taylor Carr republished on The Secular Outpost with permission. The original post may be found on his blog, The Godless Skeptic.

If it’s right for someone to permit some event, then his action is just right… On my view, the wrongness of an action is determined by its being forbidden by God. An action is morally permissible if it is not forbidden by God. Now obviously God didn’t forbid permitting the Haitian earthquake, so it has the right-making property of being permitted by God.

-William Lane Craig

The above quote is from a debate between Michael Tooley and William Lane Craig. In the debate, Professor Tooley focuses largely on the evidential problem of evil, which forms the context of this quote. Craig disputes Tooley’s ideas on balancing right-making and wrong-making properties to determine the overall morality of an action, instead declaring that whatever god allows is what’s right. There are no exceptions, he wants to emphasize, which he indicates by his bold remark about the 2010 Haitian earthquake being right simply because god permitted it to occur.

Let’s consider the implications of these statements. According to Craig, anything that has happened has been right for god to allow, since rightness is, by definition, whatever god allows. This doesn’t just mean the Haitian earthquake, but also includes the centuries of bloodshed known as the Crusades, the horrible tortures during the Inquisition, the terrible suffering of the Black Death, the slaughter of Native Americans, the ruthless regimes of Stalin and Pol Pot, the mass rapes committed during the Bosnian War, Hitler’s extermination of millions of Jews, the child abuse epidemic within the Catholic Church, and much, much more. It will not do to credit any of these to human will because, as Craig explains, whatever god permits is right. There is no wiggle room. To entertain that allowing these atrocities was anything but right for god would be to suggest that there are moral ambiguities or moral evils which god could commit, and Craig can’t have that.

This raises the question, then, about what evil actually means on Dr. Craig’s worldview. He says that wrong action is whatever is forbidden by god, but if god exists, he has historically allowed rape, murder, torture, child molestation, slavery, racism, sexism, cannibalism, genocide, injustice, and a litany of other ills. Is there anything that god could not or would not allow? It seems hard to imagine what he could be withholding from our world, so perhaps it’s not any of the acts themselves that he would forbid, but just a certain severity of them. God only allows the amount of evil that’s necessary for us to be free agents. Craig has claimed this in several debates.

However, it’s difficult to make a persuasive case for this when looking at some of the atrocities of history, particularly the ones I’ve already elaborated on. It also implies that god has some puzzling priorities. Is free will that worth it to god that he would allow six million Jews to die in Nazi Germany? Add to that the deaths from the other mentioned atrocities, as well as additional unmentioned ones, and the death toll climbs staggeringly high. There are over 774,000 words in the Bible. In order for god to give us free will, more than ten times that number of human beings have had to suffer and die in agonizingly cruel and reprehensible ways. Craig encourages us to trust our intuitions about the existence of objective moral values, yet we’re supposed to suppress them when they tell us that there is too much pain and evil in this world for a perfectly good god to be running things.

It could be argued that prioritizing free will over the prevention of suffering and evil is itself an evil. In fact, we recognize something like this when we prevent our children from doing things that would be otherwise harmful to themselves or to others. We stop them from exercising their free will, while we simultaneously teach them why what they want to do is wrong, so that some day when they mature, they will hopefully make better decisions. We don’t just talk the talk, we make them walk the walk, too, if we are responsible parents. Until they mature, they won’t appreciate the wide array of complex issues in the moral sphere. Now, if god exists, and if his grasp on morality is far more perfect than ours, why would he not be like the understanding parent who guides her children in more than just words, knowing that they don’t see what she sees?

When responding to the problem of evil in his debates, Dr. Craig very often raises the possibility of unknown reasons god might have for allowing the existence of some evils. The atheist, he challenges, must prove that god can have no such reasons in order to claim that there are unnecessary evils, and of course Craig doesn’t think this can be done, since we are all limited in our capacity for knowledge. It could very well be that there is nothing god would not allow, and that therefore there is no such thing as evil for god. In a sense, this looks like what Craig believes. He might say god could not contradict his own nature, but if his nature already allows for acts of rape, murder, torture, child abuse, etc., what reason is there to think that anything could contradict god’s nature?

William Lane Craig is a Divine Command Theorist. He believes, as he’s explained in numerous debates, that god’s nature is good, and that his commands flow from his nature. But, like I just stated, things like rape, murder, torture, child abuse, and so forth, are apparently consistent with god’s nature. After all, if god permits something, it must be right for god. To say these things are inconsistent with the divine nature would be to say that they would not be allowed by god. However, they certainly have happened in our history and continue to happen. So now the troubling question. If god’s nature is consistent with these heinous acts – if he has permitted them to take place – why would we think he might not command us to commit any of them? If Dr. Craig is right about god only allowing the minimal amount of evil for free will to exist, and having hidden reasons for allowing apparently unnecessary evils, and historically having permitted only that which is right for him to permit, then what stands in the way of god commanding us to commit acts of rape, murder, or child abuse, if they will fulfill some godly purpose?

Craig is known for sometimes quoting Dostoevsky – “without god, everything is permitted” (this quote is not exactly accurate, though). But here we start to see that it’s actually Dr. Craig’s worldview that seems to permit everything. In fact, even the apostle Paul said as much in 1 Corinthians 10:23 – “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable” (NAS). Paul encouraged the believers of his day to eat meat sacrificed to idols, because they knew idols were just wood and stone. But if eating the meat might cause a fellow believer to stumble, Paul said, you should not do it. In other words, if your conscience is clear before god, everything is permitted… just don’t lead others into temptation. Paul’s opinion on circumcision is very similar; fine for some, bad for others.

Another quote Craig is well known for presenting in debates is from Michael Ruse. Without god, “ethics is illusory,” Bill cries emphatically to his opponents. On th
e contrary, though, it would seem that with all the unbelievably hurtful and immoral acts god has permitted down the course of history, ethics is inescapably illusory on Dr. Craig’s worldview. God’s nature is consistent with allowing every conceivable evil, and his commands, flowing from that nature, come with no guarantee of being any different. If we’re to believe the traditional account of the fall of Lucifer, god even allowed the emergence and continued existence of Satan, the embodiment of pure evil. With so ambiguous a nature, there is literally no reason to think god would never command any act that we would normally regard as evil. 

This is why William Lane Craig’s excuses fail when he attempts to distinguish between what theists believe about god’s nature being good and how Divine Command Theory is often understood as positing that good is whatever god commands. On either account, goodness has no normative force, no distinctive essence. God will be just as good to allow someone to feed the starving emaciated children of Haiti as he will be to allow the Duvaliers and others to exterminate them in the cruelest ways. God will be just as good to command the feeding of five thousand as he will be to command the genocide of entire peoples (Deut. 2:34, Joshua 6:21, 1 Samuel 15:2-3). On Craig’s view, there is to be no real distinction between these extremes that the overwhelming majority of us would recognize in clear terms of right and wrong. So long as god has prescribed or permitted them, none of it should be called evil. 

Only what god forbids is wrong. But when he forbids the same acts he has otherwise allowed, we see the uselessness of such a framework. Morality is reduced to a matter of “do as I say, not as I do”. As previously stated, even if we suppose god has hidden reasons for commanding what he does, the fact that his nature is consistent with allowing every conceivable evil makes it fairly dubious that all those reasons are justifying reasons. Particularly in the case of animal suffering, there seems to be an evil that is without justification. Apologists often assert that god allows human suffering to bring us closer to him, but animals do not participate in relationships with god, according to Christian doctrine. Their suffering, then, would seem to be unnecessary.

There is something that appears insufficient to me about this distinction between what god allows and forbids, too. Philosophers and ethicists test the strength of their moral theories by holding them up to our moral experience and moral intuitions. I don’t think any of us can argue that we perceive certain actions as being right and certain actions as being wrong. There are grey areas, to be sure, but we can also distinguish between many different acts and form judgments accordingly. In other words, good moral theories have some capability to predict or elaborate what actions will be right or wrong in hypothetical scenarios. Dr. Craig’s Divine Command Theory lacks this capability, in my opinion. It cannot judge an action even when all of its consequences and causes are taken into account. The only time it will be able to make a judgment is when that additional information exists: does god will the action or does he forbid it? Scripture can be no help, since god has willed and forbidden murder at various times, for example, and – to bring things back around to where we started – history also records the terrible things god has permitted.

In conclusion, I’m not convinced that William Lane Craig actually believes in evil, despite his insistence that he does. At best, it must be a pale vestige of what he demands of the atheist – a bizarre sort of wrongness that rests on the nature of a morally ambiguous being that has historically contradicted our most basic moral intuitions. What can it mean to call rape evil under Craig’s view of morality? It can’t mean that god’s nature is inconsistent with rape, because he has allowed it for centuries, and god cannot permit what is wrong. It can’t mean that god disapproves of rape, because it is consistent with his nature. The most it can apparently mean is “god says no to rape in this instance”. Why this instance? Why say no at all? Perhaps he has some hidden reason. Or perhaps the hidden truth is that ethics is illusory on Dr. Craig’s worldview.

bookmark_borderNot 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.