No Crimes in the Name of Atheism?

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Here:

As Beatrice and Sidney Webb wrote in their admiring description of the USSR (‘Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation, 1940 edition) : ’It is exactly the explicit denial of the intervention of any God, or indeed of any will other than human will, in the universe, that has attracted to Soviet Communism the sympathies of many intellectuals and especially of scientists in civilised countries’.
They added :’Lenin insisted, as the basis of all his teaching, on a resolute denial of there being any known manifestation of the supernatural. He steadfastly insisted that the universe known to mankind (including mind equally with matter) was the sphere of science….
‘…When the Bolsheviks came into power in 1917, they made this defiant and dogmatic atheism the basis of their action’

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49 Responses to “ No Crimes in the Name of Atheism? ”

  1. All (radical) Muslims are monotheists, but not all monotheists are Muslim. All (Leninist) communists are atheist, but not all atheists are communists.

    If your point is that atheists can commit terrible crimes, I fully agree. If your point is that atheists are likely to commit terrible crimes just because they’re atheist, I have to disagree. You didn’t include any commentary, so it’s hard to tell.

  2. Ray,
    I think it is merely a counter example to people who insist that religion is the source of all evil and that atheism is the shining light of reason and goodness in the world (e.g. Dawkins and his ilk).

    Clearly not true, and here’s an example why not.

    I highly doubt it was intended to be a blanket statement. At least from my point of view, I shouldn’t have meant it that way 🙂

    Saskia

  3. Ray, my point is that those who say no major crimes have been committed in the name of atheism (or anything approximating that) are wrong. This is something I have heard said frequently.

  4. Why should it matter if a prominent atheist said it or not? Somebody said it and sadly there appear to be some out there who stop paying attention after the headline (“Root of all evil”, “Religion Poisons Everything” and so on) and are in agreement.

    While the smart chaps over at RD.net couch their accusations in slightly less dramatic language, it not a million miles away from what Saskia (somewhat hyperbolically) claimed. http://old.richarddawkins.net/discussions/509873-top-5-most-evil-religions

    I don’t particularly like weighing up the atrocities on both sides to see who comes out of it looking the best. It seems like a rather sad case of points scoring. (Not saying this is what is being done here.) But when challenged on the matter I encourage people to do a search on the “League of Militant Atheists”. They were as fun a bunch as they sound. Would they fit the bill, Ray?

  5. The essence of atheism is rebellion. The USSR was the worst kind of totalitarian state. Therefore, it’s disingenuous for Christians talk about the USSR as an example of an atheist state.

    Even though the Soviet leaders disbelieved in God, they made everyone worship the supreme leader. From the modern atheist’s point of view, that’s pretty much the same thing. In fact, the USSR under Stalin looks very much like a theocracy. It was Stalin-worship.

    Atheism doesn’t just deny the Christian God, but it denies all gods. Stalin set himself up as an idol. He cultivated a quasi-religious aura to intimidate the people. See, you could really argue that the USSR was a theocracy. So it’s disingenuous for Christians to keep talking about those evil atheist communists.

  6. @John Moore:

    Atheism doesn’t just deny the Christian God, but it denies all gods. Stalin set himself up as an idol. He cultivated a quasi-religious aura to intimidate the people. See, you could really argue that the USSR was a theocracy. So it’s disingenuous for Christians to keep talking about those evil atheist communists.

    I just had an epiphany.

    Of course USSR was a theocracy. And North-Korea is a theocracy as well. And also Cuba. In fact all the former eastern bloc regimes were theocracies. And China is also a theocracy. Forget what they themselves believe and proclaim; it is clear that they are lying. Think about it; why would theocrats expose themselves? It is all so simple and obvious. They are lying! They say that they are atheists just to give good, brave, gentle and caring atheists like John Moore a bad name! The fiends! And the Khmer Rouge? Theocracies. The Reign of Terror after the French Revolution? A theocracy. And if the Good People of America does not watch out the Creationists will inaugurate a theocracy in the United States as well. Those sneaky Creationists are everywhere. Why, I bet some of them hide in this very blog. You should do something about it Tom. Damn historians worldwide, damn history books; there were never atheist regimes on earth, because the “essence of atheism is rebellion” against all the time-worn little lies that oppress mankind. But the USSR was a totalitarian regime, ergo True Atheism had nothing to do with it. It is just malevolent propaganda spread out by those Christians (I just caught one in my house! The gall of these people!). Thank the unnamed-one we have brave, courageous souls like you, John Moore, that have the guts to Proclaim the Gospel Truth. May you always remain true to the real essence of atheism: a rebel to the end. Well Ok, not a rebel against atheism, because that would be silly. There are limits to rebellion, after all. Or a rebel against rebellion, as that would be contradictory. But a rebel. Yes, a rebel. A rebel without a pause. Party for your right to fight.

  7. They weren’t lying. When they said they were atheist, they meant they didn’t believe in the God in heaven. There are lots of other gods, though.

    Do you disagree with my statement that the essence of atheism is rebellion?

  8. @John Moore:

    Do you disagree with my statement that the essence of atheism is rebellion?

    The irony is just too sweet.

    The answer is no, I do not disagree. But *you* should.

  9. Let’s see, you think I should disagree with my own statement because I say atheism is rebellion, so I should rebel against my own statement. Is that what you mean?

    Well, there’s no need to take it to such an extreme. You don’t have to rebel always and forever against everything. Rebellion is just a general attitude, not a strict doctrine written in stone.

  10. In a Christian context atheism certainly is rebellion. In a non-theistic context I don’t think your statement makes a great deal of sense. Atheism is the belief that God(s) doesn’t exist. Or, if one wishes to make a slightly weaker statement, it’s the lack of belief in God(s).

    John, I think we both agree that people have and will use religious beliefs – specifically supernatural beliefs – to justify terrible deeds. Do you think that atheism can ever be implicated in atrocities the same way religious beliefs can? Or is atheism always it incidental to a person’s decision to do x, y or z?

    In other words, do you think that Stalin’s atheism played no significant role in his decision to kill a whole load of people? Much like his preferred choice in ice-cream presumably played no role.

  11. Tom Gilson –

    No prominent atheist says that religion is the root of all evil, perhaps, but some 400 or so Internet readers say it is. FWIW.

    Oooh, are you in trouble, Tom! Crude is gonna nail you for that one!

  12. BSquibs asks: “Do you think that Stalin’s atheism played no significant role in his decision to kill a whole load of people?”

    Well, I’m sort of arguing here that Stalin wasn’t really an atheist. Obviously he wasn’t a Christian, but I suggest he considered himself a god. It was his quasi-religious megalomania that led to so many atrocities.

    Tom asks: “Do atheist’s actions have any connection to their beliefs?”

    I’d say you can never predict what an atheist might do. Good and bad are both possible, but you can’t say an atheist must always do such-and-such. This is different from religious people, who follow leaders. You can predict what the followers will do by checking what the leader says.

    If you follow Jesus, then you necessarily love your neighbor as yourself, etc. Otherwise, you’re not really a follower of Jesus. That’s how religion is supposed to work, anyway. Right?

  13. Atheism isn’t normative. It’s impossible to commit crimes in the “name of atheism” because atheism has no creed or dogma; it is simply the belief that a God or gods do not exist.

    So, atheists are certainly just as capable of doing awful things as anyone else, but they will do it for other reasons – e.g., in the case of Stalin, in the service of other dogmas. Sam Harris has talked about this at length in a few of his lectures available on Youtube. The problem with Stalin, et al, isn’t that they were too reasonable or rational. If anything, it’s that they subscribed to dogmas that were themselves very much like religions.

    I can understand why modern theists may sometimes feel as though religion is being singled out in the gnu atheists’ pantheon of bad ideas, but that’s simply because nationalism, Marxism, etc., are not significant problems in most of the civilized world. Religion, however, remains pervasive and is as dogmatic as ever.

  14. @John, can you show me some evidence that Stalin considered himself a god? Can you also explain to me why should we find a new category for someone who utterly rejects the existence of God when we have the category of “atheist” already?

    @Mike
    Religion is widespread even in the “civilised world” (a regrettable turn of phrase on your part), but it is not by definition pervasive. And dogmatically sayin’ as much don’t make it so.

    Anyway, back to the topic – no crimes in the name of atheism.

  15. John Moore –

    Stalin wasn’t really an atheist… I suggest he considered himself a god

    On what basis?

    It seems quite clear that Stalin (and Lenin, and Mao, and Pol Pot) were atheists. They weren’t even ‘weak atheists’, who didn’t think there was good evidence for God(s), but ‘strong atheists’, who positively believed god(s) didn’t exist.

    Now, Kim Jong Un? You might have a case there, considering the fact that the regime actually makes supernatural claims of its leader.

    I’m not bothered by it, any more than, say, Christians are bothered by the fact that the 9/11 bombers were monotheists, too. Just saying someone is “atheist” doesn’t tell you much about someone’s beliefs or behavior, any more than finding out someone’s a “theist” tells you if they practice human sacrifice or not.

    I’d say you can never predict what an atheist might do… This is different from religious people, who follow leaders.

    You’re right-ish in the limited sense that you can’t tell what someone will do if the only fact you know is that they’re an atheist. I’ll even give you half a point since ‘atheism’ doesn’t really have established doctrines; there are many overlapping ‘schools’ of atheism. (It’s rather like the early Christian church in that way – shades of Gnosticism, the Monophysites, etc. Took around three centuries for the Nicene Creed to be formulated.)

    But some schools of atheism are fairly well-defined. A “Marxist-Leninist” can be predicted as well as any Pentecostal, I’d say. As I’ve said elsewhere, “A worldview that doesn’t include supernatural elements can be just as rigid and dogmatic – or as flexible and open – as any religion.”

  16. Here’s my basis for suggesting Stalin wasn’t really an atheist. Earlier I said the essence of atheism is rebellion, and so by implication the essence of religion is submission to supreme authority. Stalin set himself up as the supreme authority that no one could question. That’s the very definition of a god, I’m arguing.

    According to this line of thinking, a god doesn’t have to be supernatural. Pretending to be supernatural is a great way to get people to submit to your authority, but it’s not a requirement.

    I admit that Stalin was an atheist with respect to the Christian God, but so were the ancient pagans. To be a real atheist, you have to deny all gods.

  17. John,

    There are a couple of definitional problems with your response.

    Firstly, from a naturalistic perspective (as opposed to a specific theological perspective) “the essence of atheism” is not rebellion, it is simply disbelief in God or lack of belief in God. See here for a rather succinct definition. Additionally, one can not be an atheist with respect to one god. One can only be a atheist with respect to all gods. If you are going to redefine a word then what you have to do is justify why you are doing this. And please note that repeating yourself is not the same as offering justification.

    Secondly, the definition of a God is not an “authority that no one could question”. God as revealed by Christianity (and I’d say the other monotheistic religions) gets his authority questioned all the time – both from within the church and from without. Indeed, if we look at atheism from that theological perspective I mentioned earlier – broadly speaking classical Christianity – then rebellion against God and his authority lies at it’s heart. Again, you have to justify why anyone should take your redefinition of God seriously.

    You have again suggested that Stalin believed himself to be a god. You have now repeated that claim (albeit in a weaker format) . I’ll repeat my request. Please provide evidence that supports your claim. Again, note that repeating yourself does not count as evidence.

    What I think you are doing, John, is redefining words that have been adequately defined and understood in order to justify a position you hold – namely that it is impossible for atheists to do bad stuff because of their atheism. And it seem clear to me that if you are staying true to your “no true atheist” line of argumentation then you would have to hold to the position that atheism played absolutely no role whatsoever in the violence and oppression those cheery chaps form the The League of Militant Atheists carried out. But I don’t wish to put words in your mouth. Can you tell me what you think?

  18. John Moore –

    Earlier I said the essence of atheism is rebellion, and so by implication the essence of religion is submission to supreme authority.

    So Satan, if such a being existed, would be an atheist?

  19. Personally I agree that Stalin idolized (made a god of) himself. That doesn’t make him a non-atheist. Self-idolatry of that sort is not incompatible with atheism as it’s usually understood; in fact, I think they go together in almost every instance.

  20. One of the most common motives for trying to get rid of God, is so that one can BE God.

    Communism, said Marx and Engels, “abolishes all morality, all religion, all eternal truth.” Sounds like the quintessence of rebellion to me. And in fact the Red Guards in China sang:

    “The hows and whys of Marxism,
    Tens of thousands of lines and threads,
    Come down in the last analysis
    To one single sentence, which is:
    To rebel is justified!”

    Of course, having rebelled against someone else, if one succeeds, that leaves oneself, or one’s party, in charge. Then what do you do?

    Rebels, as Milton recognized, prefer to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.

    So they make a hell, and put themselves in charge. Or put themselves in charge, and made a hell.

    So I don’t entirely disagree with John. The essence of atheism often IS rebellion. And there are a million hells percolating in that pot.

    The essence of the American revolution, by contrast, was not rebellion — that was its byproduct, and a very partial one. Jesus, too, disobeyed the religious leaders, because he was obedient to God. And that is the sane balance we need — a Higher Authority, to whom we appeal to win greater freedom and dignity, without making ourselves into false gods.

  21. To clarify,

    I don’t [i]entirely[/i] disagree with John either. In fact I happen to think that he is on to something, but just not in a way he intended or is likely to find compelling.

    I suggest that from a Biblical perspective atheism is at root rebellion against God. That seems pretty self-explanatory to me. On the other side, if one assumes atheism to be true, then apart from a set of religious ideas or a hitherto accepted orthodoxy, there really is nothing to rebel against. Atheism is simply not believing/ lacking belief in God. On this view rebellion is not fundamental to atheism, just disbelief.

    But perhaps I’m missing the picture.

  22. I admit it’s suspicious of me to try to redefine atheism, but I think the atheism = rebellion idea is somewhat compatible with standard definitions, and above all it’s interesting or useful for sparking discussion. This has been a pretty good discussion, I think.

    Maybe someone can write a future blog post focusing on why atheism usually entails self-idolatry, as some of you have said. Why do you think that?

    Just because someone rebels against god, that doesn’t mean they worship themselves or want others to worship them. Atheism is like ignorance insofar as an atheist might say, “I don’t know the answer but I think God is not the answer.” Just because you reject one answer doesn’t mean you cling to some other answer. Atheists really have no clue at all!

  23. Thanks for the response John. Can you explain what you think an atheist is rebelling against? It can’t be God because there is no God (or so the contention goes). If you say that it is rebelling against the idea of God(s) or the supernatural in a world that overwhelmingly affirms such beliefs then that opposition isn’t something intrinsic to atheism per se. One could clam this about any two diametrically opposed views. I@m afraid I still don’t see it.

    As for the rebellious nature of atheism – at least from what I take to be my largely orthodox understanding of Christianity – I would look to Romans 1:18-25 as potentially offering an explanation. My understanding of Paul’s words is that –

    a) There is sufficient knowledge of God evident in creation (and this seems very plausible to me because I think a rigorously held atheism is so very costly in what it demands).

    b) Those who have turned away from God have replaced him with the neon gods they made.

    I’m sure the theologians out there could expand on this.

  24. I don’t agree with it, but the standard retort here is simply going to be “Atheism is just a lack of belief in God”. Asserting that there is nothing supernatural, that mind = matter, etc., are NOT equivalent to atheism. Therefore, these crimes were not performed in the name of atheism. Materialism? Maybe. Naturalism? Possibly. But not atheism. Never mind that you almost never get one without the other.

  25. John Moore –

    Just because someone rebels against god

    And just because someone doesn’t believe in something doesn’t mean they are rebelling against it. I’m not rebelling against unicorns or the Steady State Theory of the universe, either.

    Your proposed definition may be useful for generating controversy, but it doesn’t seem to be useful at generating discussion.

  26. Here are some questions for our atheist visitors:

    1. Who knows better what I believe, me or you?

    2. If your understanding of my beliefs is fallacious why would I even consider abandoning them?

    3. If I can logically demonstrate that world view A (my belief) is a better explanation for human existence and the human predicament than B, C, D or no belief at all, why should I abandon my belief in A?

    4. What is your purpose for showing up at a Christian website like this?
    Is it: (1) to persuade Christians that non-belief is better than belief? Or, (2) to justify your own disbelief or non-belief? Or, (3) some other reason?

  27. You’re right, Ray Ingles, that atheists don’t really rebel against God. That’s just a manner of speaking, I guess. You can’t rebel against something that doesn’t exist. What atheists are rebelling against is the very idea of God, which is ultimate authority. Atheists rebel against the person who claims to know ultimate truth and demands you worship that dogma. God has no authority, but atheists rebel against human authorities who claim to have the ultimate truth, like priests and mystics – or also totalitarian despots.

    So the short answer, BSquibs, is that atheists rebel against authority.

  28. But I still don’t see how rebellion is intrinsic to atheism.

    In a society that largely rejects the existence of God you are saying that people are still rebelling against the idea of God? Lets say that tomorrow there was total world wide non-belief in God. Are you saying that atheism would remain defined (at least by you) as rebellion against authority?

    Would you say that Democracy is rebellion because it rejects other political systems such as Communism?

    It looks to me that in rebelling against claims to ultimate truth you are appealing to a belief system that itself claims something about ultimate truth. Do you not see this?

  29. John Moore –

    What atheists are rebelling against is the very idea of God, which is ultimate authority.

    Sez who?

    That may be your motivation to profess atheism… but that doesn’t mean it’s universal. That’s not how I or any of the atheists I know experience it. I just don’t see good arguments for theism in general, and see evidence contradicting a lot of the specific theisms I know of.

    God has no authority, but atheists rebel against human authorities who claim to have the ultimate truth, like priests and mystics – or also totalitarian despots.

    Again, sez who? A whole lotta people in the Soviet Union and in China didn’t and don’t believe in God, and yet they didn’t and don’t rebel against totalitarian despots. Is it your contention that someone who doesn’t believe in God(s), but knuckles under to authority, is not really an atheist?

  30. John Moore:

    What atheists are rebelling against is the very idea of God, which is ultimate authority. Atheists rebel against the person who claims to know ultimate truth and demands you worship that dogma. God has no authority, but atheists rebel against human authorities who claim to have the ultimate truth, like priests and mystics – or also totalitarian despots.

    John, who is demanding that you worship their dogma? For example, as an atheist are you under the Pope’s authority? As a non-Catholic, I certainly don’t think that I’m under his authority, so what is there for me to rebel against? Do you feel threatened because committed Catholics submit to his authority?

    (Another example of atheist irrationality.)

  31. JAD –

    1. Who knows better what I believe, me or you?

    You, of course. But do note the converse. That also means atheists are a better authority on what they believe than, say, a Christian. 🙂

    2. If your understanding of my beliefs is fallacious why would I even consider abandoning them?

    You shouldn’t, of course. But I could respond the way the Spartans did to Phillip II: “If”. 🙂

    3. If I can logically demonstrate that world view A (my belief) is a better explanation for human existence and the human predicament than B, C, D or no belief at all, why should I abandon my belief in A?

    “If”.

    4. What is your purpose for showing up at a Christian website like this?

    Mostly to try to keep Christians honest about the way they represent atheists. If we’re gonna disagree, we might as well be clear on exactly how we disagree.

  32. Atheism isn’t normative. It’s impossible to commit crimes in the “name of atheism” because atheism has no creed or dogma; it is simply the belief that a God or gods do not exist.

    By that logic it shouldn’t be possible to have a Global Atheist Convention.

  33. bigbird –

    By that logic it shouldn’t be possible to have a Global Atheist Convention.

    Um… not all conventions are about advancing a “creed or dogma”, y’know. For example, some are for people with common interests meeting up.

  34. Um… not all conventions are about advancing a “creed or dogma”, y’know. For example, some are for people with common interests meeting up.

    Whatever. It is still done in the name of atheism.

  35. Lack of believe bonds people together with a sense of common interest?? I’ve never seen such a thing carried out in practice. It’s usually some positive attribute that bonds and motivates. Nobody gathers at a bar because they lack belief in their teams ability to win.

  36. When something affects someone’s life (atheism – particularly a public shift to atheism from a different previous position – sometimes affects e.g. a person’s relationship with their family, friends, colleagues, community), they often want to engage with people in a similar situation. It’s completely natural and not really surprising.

    And are you really still trying to argue that conventions exist only if the gathering is based on creed and dogma?

    There’s some great debates on this site that are incredibly illuminating, but lately it seems people are more often arguing for the sake of arguing…

  37. Beliefs do not exist in isolation – they will impact many other parts of one’s thoughts and ideas, and often commonalities exist without being defined by creed or dogma.

    Perhaps more pertinently atheism for some will directly affect their life and circumstances (paritcularly if they “come out” or become atheist from a different position) – and change their relationship with family, friends, colleagues, community. It seems completely natural and obvious to me that people would want to engage with others in a similar situation to themselves. [bigbird – do you seriously want to argue that conventions exist only if they have a creed or dogma behind them? Really?]

    That being said that particular convention seems representative of the culture of new atheism – a group which have tried to hijack the word to encompass a wider set of ideas. It doesn’t prevent people from distinguishing it from its traditional meaning though – rendering the bickering about this issue rather pointless.

  38. Lack of believe bonds people together with a sense of common interest?? I’ve never seen such a thing carried out in practice. It’s usually some positive attribute that bonds and motivates. Nobody gathers at a bar because they lack belief in their teams ability to win

    Apparently, atheists gather at global conventions because of their lack of belief in a deity. So it does happen.

  39. To paraphrase – in current culture/society, religious identity is often an important part of wider social identity (and even for those who do not consider it important, its still imposed externally by how others interact with them) – and to self-identify as an atheist will sometimes directly affect one’s life – and it seems completely unsurprising to me that people want to meet, associate, share thoughts, ideas, experiences, advice, support with those with the same identity who are going through the same things.

    Is that really not obvious?

  40. Yes, it’s obvious. But the point, Alex, is that people do things in the name of atheism. Whereas the constant claim I hear from atheists anxious to disclaim Lenin et al is that “nobody does anything in the name of atheism”.

  41. I know what you mean bigbird, and I think I would agree that “nobody does anything in the name of atheism” is incorrect.

    However I still think its an important matter of differentiating between what is done “in the name of” atheism qua atheism (not much of note) and “atheism+worldview referred to as atheism” (some new atheist behaviour, Lenin, etc).