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Is atheism responsible for atrocities?

In a discussion with Sam Harris, Steven Pinker presents a cogent take-down of the “HitlerStalinPolPot” gambit that some Christians like to play. That’s the one where they say, “Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were atheists who killed millions of people, therefore atheism is terrible.”

Harris serves the ball.

Need I remind you that the “atheist regimes” of the 20th century killed tens of millions of people?

This is a popular argument among theoconservatives and critics of the new atheism, but for many reasons it is historically inaccurate.

First, the premise that Nazism and Communism were “atheist” ideologies makes sense only within a religiocentric worldview that divides political systems into those that are based on Judaeo-Christian ideology and those that are not. In fact, 20th-century totalitarian movements were no more defined by a rejection of Judaeo-Christianity than they were defined by a rejection of astrology, alchemy, Confucianism, Scientology, or any of hundreds of other belief systems. They were based on the ideas of Hitler and Marx, not David Hume and Bertrand Russell, and the horrors they inflicted are no more a vindication of Judeao-Christianity than they are of astrology or alchemy or Scientology.

Second, Nazism and Fascism were not atheistic in the first place. Hitler thought he was carrying out a divine plan. Nazism received extensive support from many German churches, and no opposition from the Vatican. Fascism happily coexisted with Catholicism in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Croatia.

When it comes to the history of violence, the significant distinction is not one between theistic and atheistic regimes. It’s the one between regimes that were based on demonizing, utopian ideologies (including Marxism, Nazism, and militant religions) and secular liberal democracies that are based on the ideal of human rights.

Not that Sam Harris hasn’t also done a fine job of answering that question himself.


  1. The problem of course being that so many of the religious see atheism as a religion, or religious enough in nature that it's prescriptive, in the worldview sense, instead of being descriptive, in the "I lack belief" sense.

    Hence it becomes "what atheism has done" as opposed to "what some atheists have done", or better yet: "what some of the religious have done, (but we don't want to recognise that, so we'll call them atheists)" (viz. Hitler)…

  2. I must disagree with you here. Atheist regimes have committed atrocities. Not all the regimes you mentioned were Atheistic, but there certainly have been governments that persecuted Theists in the name of Atheism, dating back at least as far as the French Revolution. Robespierre and his ilk executed priests and other clergy members in an attempt to de-Christianize France (as well as replacing the calendar and other things). Not only were the French revolutionaries Atheists who tried to replace religion with reason, but several killings were explicitly made for Atheism.

  3. Vid — Thanks for showing me something I hadn't seen before.

    Dogma sucks. I think the Cult of Reason ought to be a cautionary tale for us. If we atheists want to have a revolution of reason, science, and secularism, then our weapons should be persuasion, argument, and logic — never force and legislation.

    The ironic and self-defeating appeal whose purpose is to evidence that there is no purpose, to posit no reason as the reason for existence, to insist on causality in a universe without cause, whose morality is to argue that there are no morals except that which we define ourselves, which in turn produces the ultimate articulation of self-centeredness that most people consider the basis for immorality, only to reject as untrue, ugly and the source of all evil, the very perfection of truth, goodness, and beauty.

    The free speech to spread their ‘gospel’ being set on very foundations of justice and truth which they ultimately deny.

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