Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Anti-Theism doesn't lead to atrocities

Pieces by Christian apologists trying to link atheism to mass murder and oppression are as common as they are wrong. What surprised me was seeing an atheist hero of mine, Jeff Lowder, agreeing with a more nuanced take by John Reynolds.

The title certainly isn’t very nuanced: Hoping Atheists (Or at Least Anti-Theists) Do Not Kill Us This Time.  The main thrust of Reynolds article is that when anti-theist bent atheists seize power, they start killing people and engage in human rights violations.

I call Reynolds take nuanced in that he strains to make a difference between atheists and anti-theists. He argues that while mere atheism doesn’t entail mass killing or persecution, anti-theism does seem to lead to it. He goes so far as to say that anti-theism was a chief motivation in the lives of Trotsky, Stalin, and Lenin and they picked their worldview to go with their anti-theism.  This strikes me as impossible to prove any more than to prove that a belief caused an action. We could just as easily say that those men were devoted to a communist ideology which took their atheism in a more stringent direction: as they became more totalitarian in enforcing their political and economic views, they became more totalitarian in enforcing their atheistic views.

Before I go too deeply down into the areas where Reynolds goes off the rails, I should note where I do agree with him.

I do agree that if anti-theists grabbed the reigns of power and tried to enforce state mandated atheistic beliefs, forced anti-theistic arguments to be taught in schools, or required one to officially proclaim atheism to join the only allowed political party – that would be (and is!) wrong and terrifying.

My issue here is that government mandated belief systems and a lack of freedom of thought is what’s harmful, full stop. When any kind of authoritarian or totalitarian regime limits freedom of thought it’s an atrocity to humanity.  What should give atheists pause is the fact that our own beliefs have no protection against these bad impulses.

Conversely, the idea that atheists themselves are particularly prone to this kind of abuse of power is plainly false.  Reynolds concedes the fact that theists do it too (it’s easy to find Islamic, Hindu, and even Jewish oppression in modern times), but he insists that Christian teaching repudiates this behavior since “Christianity teaches to love thy enemies” and so killing and torturing is against a core Christian teaching. Of course Christianity teaches that “God loves all humans” but this god has no problem condemning billions of humans to eternal conscious torture in the most widespread versions of Christianity. Jesus also says “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” The Christian god commands in the old testament to stone people to death for certain sins, allegedly drowned nearly the entire human population, and a host of other atrocities. My point here is that “Christian love” allows for a whole lot of killing and torture, and that the bible’s teaching on these matters is contradictory, to the point where specific interpretations are necessary to avoid said contradictions. 

The fact is that the members of the Inquisition believed they were acting out of love. If they could get people to recant, or to not preach non-Christian religions, they were saving their (or others) eternal souls from eternal conscious torment!  

Modern Christians have the benefit of being forced to temper their authoritarian impulses, at least at the national level, over the past few centuries. We don’t have to go back very far to when it was Christians persecuting atheists, Jews, or Muslims; no one may expect the Spanish Inquisition, but we’re certainly not going to forget them.  Apologists like to argue that whatever the failings of Christian nations in medieval Europe, atheist regimes in the 20th century killed far more than they ever did. I would argue that while technically true it is only the case because the tools of oppression were far more advanced in modern days vs. what could be accomplished by a nation in medieval times. I shudder to think what the crusades would have looked like had the countries had access to communications technology, modern supply chains, let alone firearms and air support.

Freedom of Religion

It’s important to point out the reason the US and European countries have freedom of thought and freedom of religion is because those countries witnessed years and years of different factions of Christians persecuting each other. Our secularism isn’t because our founding fathers weren’t Christian (though some weren’t), it’s because they recognized that sectarian religious violence was an impediment to running a stable country.  At the time of the US founding there were still hyper religious factions that wanted the constitution to say that we were an explicitly Christian nation, they simply failed.

Modern day Christian dominionists of course put the lie to the idea that modern Christians are somehow immune to trying to force a theocracy. They certainly have no theological problems justifying their views and regularly criticize their Christian critics as “not real Christians”.

In areas of the country where Christians dominate it is not hard to find instances of anti-atheist or non-Christian persecution. Just go read many instances of it at Godless In Dixie or the many cases of local populations trying to impose Christianity via their public schools that the FFRF has to get involved in. The entirety of backlash of the religious right to the removal of forced school prayer by the SCOTUS is evidence of their desire to use parts of the state to force their religion onto children.

Still, none of this is to dismiss the appalling human rights abuses by atheistic totalitarian regimes.

What the USSR did was horrific, what China is doing now is horrific. The point is not to excuse atheistic abuses, it’s to point out that abuses aren’t unique to anti-theism and that Christian teachings don’t really provide a rebuke to such persecutions. Interpretations of Christianity can provide a rebuke, but atheist compatible meta-ethical systems can similarly provide a rebuke to atheist abusers.

Cherry Picking Counter Examples

Reynolds wants to avoid the obvious counter examples to his thesis that exist in post-Christian Europe.  He states that “We will all rest easier when there is an atheistic regime that does not plunge into anti-theism and kill people.” but then goes on to claim that European nations where this is the case don’t count because the populations aren’t completely atheists, or have inherited a “Jewish/Christian morality”.

Here Reynolds is playing a bit fast and loose with what atheism and theism mean. For instance, in his footnote against using Sweden as a counter example he says that 18% of Swedes believe in a traditional god and 45% believe in a spirit or life force and so Sweden is not a “majority atheistic” country.  However, he also refers to North Korea as an oppressive atheistic regime, ignoring the fact that for decades the country fostered worship of their supreme leader as a kind of spiritual deity. This was in fact widespread in North Korea if we are to believe the testimony of people who have escaped.

If “believing in a spirt or life force” means that one isn’t an atheist, then North Korea can’t count because they fostered belief in the Kim’s as deities.

This is just an internal inconsistency, my main problem here is how loose apologists can be with what a god is when they want to.  Have an atheist bring up the “I’m an atheist in 3000 gods, you’re an atheist in 2999 of them” kind of argument and you’ll get all sorts of theological opining on how the definition of God is an omniscient, omnipotent, omni-benevolent being, probably with some additional parameters of being a necessary being, or the ground of all being, and as such there can only ever be ONE of those in existence, so comparing Yahweh to Thor is making a category error.  Reynolds has posts from just last month that bring out this theological distinction.

But then what is an atheist? Someone who believes God does not exist.

So if an atheist believes there is no God in the strict sense that apologists insist we must use as a definition in other contexts, then someone who says they do not believe in the “Traditional god” (aka 82% of Swedes per Reynolds own quoted stats) are definitionally atheists, even if they still believe in other supernatural entities like ghosts, life forces, or karma. They may not be naturalists, but they are certainly still atheists.

In fact when you look at a list of countries by irreligion you can see that the WIN-Gallup International Association shows the totals for “not a religious person” and “a convinced atheist” combined, we get a host of majority irreligious European countries (and more) that do not have human rights abuse records. This would include Sweden, the UK, Belgium, Australia, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Israel, and Canada.

Perhaps you can quibble that not all of these people should be counted as atheists; but they do count for the purposes of Reynolds argument. 

Reynolds argument hinges on the idea that at least Christians or other religions can rebuke supposedly pious leaders who persecute people as not following their specific moral teachings where as an atheist who behaves well merely chooses not to embrace a Randian selfishness or a totalitarian ideology.

But since these countries have a majority that is at least irreligious, then they by definition are doing what Reynolds says will allow him and other Christians to breathe a sigh of relief – a majority irreligious society that can supposedly “choose” its values is choosing to not impose an authoritarian anti-theistic regime that limits freedom of thought.

Everyone Chooses Their Morals

So by Reynolds own criteria we can show he is wrong, but he gets a few other important things wrong when it comes to atheists being alone in “choosing” their morals.

This is no less something that any religious believer does, including Christians. There is no shortage of apologists trying to pair down a “mere Christianity”, decoupling popular Christian beliefs (eternal conscious torment in hell, penal substitutionary atonement, young earth creationism, Noah’s Ark/global flood being historical, evolution denial/historical Adam) from “Christianity itself”. This extends to a host of moral issues from marriage to LBGT rights. As LBGT rights gain acceptance we’re finding more and more Christians who insist the bible has no such prohibitions on those kinds of relationships or identities.

There are 30,000+ Christian denominations with wildly different interpretations of what Yahweh finds morally permissible, or how a Christian should act within society (Dominionists aren’t exactly pluralistic).

My point is that there is no singular moral teaching of Christianity on the question of freedom of thought or freedom of religion. If anything it is hostile, as the freedom of religion is the freedom to commit blasphemy and violate multiple of the 10 commandments that religious conservatives are so keen on erecting on government property in the US.

The point is, Christians no less than atheists ‘choose’ which version of their religion to follow, which can be good or bad.  If you want to talk about Christians and religious persecution, look no further than Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism who wrote “On the Jews and their Lies” and advocated for explicit persecution of the Jews!

Atheists vs. Anti-Theists

My final point is that I seem to be a walking contradiction to Reynolds framing. I’m an atheist and I think as someone with a podcast and YouTube channel dedicated to refuting religious apologetics I think that counts me as anti-theistic. I don’t think theists should be denied rights or even necessarily be treated badly, but I think the evidence is on my side – much like Christians (or Muslims, or Jews, or Hindu’s) think it is on there’s.

Yet I still condiment he actions of the USSR, China, and other places that persecute Christians or any other religious person, even when I think those religious people hold morally abhorrent views.

So the problem isn’t anti-theists vs. atheists vs. Christians or theists. It’s advocating for secularism and freedom of thought that Reynolds is really getting at.  This has never been something expressly Christian so much as it has been something that’s developed over time in areas where society has had to repeatedly deal with religious sectarian strife.

This is a general idea and one that we in “the West” have found to work well, there is no reason to think that atheist majority societies wouldn’t carry this forward, in fact the kind of society Reynolds defines as being at risk for this sort of behavior is already carrying it forward in these liberal western European and other countries.  Even here it certainly isn’t being carried forward because those places have Christian heritages (South Korean and Japan are counter examples), but rather because they had to develop secular/pluralistic norms in order for their societies to grow.


  1. You say: "My issue here is that government mandated belief systems and a lack of freedom of thought is what’s harmful, full stop. When any kind of authoritarian or totalitarian regime limits freedom of thought it’s an atrocity to humanity. What should give atheists pause is the fact that our own ideology is no protection against these bad impulses."

    I applaud that statement and I agree with it completely. I find it highly ironic because there was a time when I used to refer to atheists as having an ideology they would throw fits "atheism is not a belief it does not have an ideology;It would be me alone vs 20 atheists on a message board going round and round; "can I call what atheists think 'ideology?'" they all to a person emphatically say "no!" Now you causally call it that.

    As for the topic we can't say with certainty or scientific accuracy that some particular belie will produce a given outcome. We can be fairly certain that ideologies of hate will produce violence, but we can't say beliefs dealing iwth any sort of metaphysics will produce a given outcome in society. I am a historian I know from my studies that one can find the worst cases of barbarism and cruelty,and narrow mindedness among people of all metaphysical stripes. There have been some abhorrently narrow minded people calling selves Christians. They weren't narrow because Christianity made them so. The USSR was not cruel because they were atheists. In both cases I think it has more to do with demonizing their opponents and thinking that God's work is up to them alone and God can't stand it if they don't take matters into their own hands.

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