About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, October 04, 2010

Don't blame me for Hitler ... or Stalin, if it comes to that

Religious people often try to blame atheists for the evils of Nazism and Stalinist communism, as the Pope did not very long ago in a speech in the UK that linked atheists with the Nazis. In the case of the Nazis, that's grossly unfair, as Nazism was not atheistic and Hitler hated atheists along with Jews, homosexuals, and his various other imagined enemies. Hitler repeatedly made clear that he thought God or divine Providence was on his side. There is plenty of information about this, including a fair, thoughtful, and sensitive discussion in The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.

By contrast, Stalin really was an atheist, so if you want to attack atheism and claim that it leads to horrors, that might be a promising place to start. But here's the thing: although I think that all sorts of god-belief are untrue, I don't think that they are all terribly or similarly harmful, and nor do I think they are uniquely harmful. For example, pagan polytheism may have encoded some of the less savoury aspects of ancient societies, such as the frequent misogyny and male fears of women's power, but by and large it was tolerant and certainly not apocalyptic or totalitarian. Whatever its faults, it did not have the same kinds of problems as the more modern sorts of monotheism such as Christianity and Islam.

By contrast, the sorts of Marxist-Leninist revolutionary communism embraced by Stalin and Mao did have many of the same problems as those monotheisms, which they imitated in many ways. In particular, they had the same extreme authoritarian tendencies. The thing is, these were comprehensive and apocalyptic belief systems. Though not positing the traditional Abrahamic God, they tended to create their own God - history with a capital-H - and to tell their followers that History was on their side.

This way of thinking is dangerous: once you think that you're acting in the service of God or History, you can be tempted to do terrible things. We have very good reason to question the authority of all forms of comprehensive, apocalyptic dogma, whether they are monotheistic or formally atheistic. If threats to our freedom currently emanated mainly from formally atheistic kinds of comprehensive apocalyptic dogma, I'd be saying very loudly that we must question these and their claims to moral and epistemological authority.

However, that is not the historical situation we are in. The Cold War has been over for a long time; as far as I can see, even China no longer subscribes in any serious way to a comprehensive body of apocalyptic dogma (though it certainly remains authoritarian); and the undoubted dangers of Marxist-Leninist revolutionary communism are about the least of our current worries.

But yes, political liberals like me are not concerned solely about the dangers of theistic dogmas. Any kind of comprehensive, apocalyptic dogma is a danger to our liberties and likely to be a source of atrocities if its adherents gain power. I get very impatient when my efforts to question the authority of religion receive the reply that terrible things were also done in the name of atheism. No they weren't: by and large they were done in the name of a quasi-religion that had its own prophets, holy books, apocalyptic view of history, and comprehensive body of dogma. All such systems merit scrutiny, but since the Cold War ended about 20 years ago, the greatest threats come from theistic systems; those are the ones we should be focusing our criticism on for the moment.

That doesn't mean that secular political liberals are never tempted to develop their ideas into comprehensive schemes with totalitarian tendencies and an element of apocalypticism. That could happen. We all need to scrutinise ourselves constantly to ensure that we're not going down that path. When I've spoken to religious groups, I've asked them to scrutinise themselves for those tendencies, but I've also pointed out that everyone in the room, including me, should do that constantly. By and large, though, secular political liberals are about the last people who'll be building and imposing comprehensive, apocalyptic systems with totalitarian tendencies. That's because we're aware of the dangers of all such systems and our life mission, to put it a bit melodramatically, is to oppose them.

It's worth reminding ourselves of the temptations now and then, of course, but it's also worth our while to tell people who compare us to Hitler, or even to Stalin, that they don't know what they're talking about.


Thanny said...

I'm not entirely convinced that Stalin himself was an atheist. He was kicked out seminary for being a Marxist, and I've seen at least one reference to him complaining about the atheism requirement of Marxism.

If he ever did give up his early-adulthood theism, it was not due to any sort of rationalism, but, as you said, the result of a different, non-theistic religion replacing it.

Roy Sablosky said...

Here is the difference. The authoritarians, whether they call themselves religious or materialist, ask us to look to our intuitions for the most important information about the world. But we now know that intuitions are usually wrong. The secularist asks us to look at the world for important information about the world.

Robert N Stephenson said...

I always find it interesting, and this post is a point of interest. It is quite fine for thre atheist to blanket blame religion for the world's evils but it is not right to highlight atheists for such wrong doings.

Stali simply showed what can happen when you have a fundmentalist athiest calling the shots.

In its hey day Communist China suppressed and banned all forms of religion and that the only gods (so to speak) were party officials. Though not officially atheists, they were in many ways secular. In recent tears (say the last 20) things have relaxed and Catholisism is the fastest growing religion in the country.

In China you would be best to ask - why, after so many years of non-religion qould the people turn to religion? I don't know, it is just a question.

Though I do not blamer atheists fort world actions, I do not b;ame Christians or Muslims or any one for any world atrocity. Such things were caused by people with a lust for power, so much so that they even ignored the teachings of what they were supposed to believe in.

Power is the corrupter rather than religion. An atheist often doen't view it this way - easier to blamne a global entity that to be specific. In that regard maybe atheistic views do need to change so they may address the individual as in the same manner they themselves want to be treated.

Some people believe in God, some people believe in Rasta and some believe in the universal energy, and then there are some who only believe in what is evidentially placed before them (try evidentially to understand the international financial system).

We live in a free world mostly and part of that freedom is the expression of your beliefs - in that expression there is no right or wrong, just the freedom.

Peter Kemp said...

Christopher Hitchens' use of English is also a delight:

"[Religious belief] is a totalitarian belief. It is the wish to be a slave. It is the desire that there be an unalterable, unchallengeable, tyrannical authority who can convict you of thought crime while you are asleep, who can subject you - who must, indeed, subject you - to total surveillance around the clock every waking and sleeping minute of your life - I say, of your life - before you're born and, even worse and where the real fun begins, after you're dead. A celestial North Korea. Who wants this to be true? Who but a slave desires such a ghastly fate? I've been to North Korea. It has a dead man as its president, Kim Jong-Il is only head of the party and head of the army. He's not head of the state. That office belongs to his deceased father, Kim Il-Sung. It's a necrocracy, a thanatocracy. It's one short of a trinity I might add. The son is the reincarnation of the father. It is the most revolting and utter and absolute and heartless tyranny the human species has ever evolved. But at least you can fucking die and leave North Korea!"

(Now with the appointment of the grandson, there is a "trinity".)

At another level, the pithy one liner:

"If you gave Jerry Falwell an enema, you could bury his remains in a matchbox."

bad Jim said...

The pope in Edinburgh repeated the point that without the moral compass that faith affords, people inevitably stray.

Every so often we ought to remind everyone that we make up our morals as we go along. It wasn't until the eighteenth century that a consensus against slavery grew strong enough to start to put an end to the practice.

The root of that change wasn't thousands of years of pious acquiescence, it was the radicalism of the Enlightenment, the realization that we, not God, are in charge of our affairs.

Anonymous said...

A great post, clearly expressed and well argued.
It is this ability humans have to slavishly devote themselves to a body of ideas and eradicate all doubt that reality might be otherwise, or that there might be other, equally beneficial ways to promote human thriving, that is our enemy.
Not all idols we worship are necessarily religious.

Russell Blackford said...

I'm doing something unusual - I've deleted a comment of my own and I'll apologise to Rob for it. I don't encourage personal snark here, so I shouldn't be acting as an example of it myself.

That said, I do get sick of this "fundamentalist atheist" meme. I find it very hard to make sense of such an idea, though there are "knee-jerk atheists", to borrow a term from PZ Myers (I think it was) and it even makes some sense to talk about "fundamentalist Marxists". There could even, I suppose, be such a thing as a fundamentalist liberal, if we're talking about some kind of comprehensive worldview associated with liberalism. It's a bit hard to imagine, because such a view would differ from what we think of as liberalism today.

I'm reposting an old post on this subject of fundamentalism. It's worth having another discussion on this if anyone is interested.

Sean P said...

Well said Russell. I believe that ongoing self examination is a healthy part of human development and should always be encouraged. It also bothers me when theists claim that atheism is responsible for atrocities equal to those committed by the faithful. What they fail to understand is the proper definition of atheism/secular humanism and the regimes they often cite could not have been more lacking in the values that humanists and atheists embrace. Hitchens astutely pointed out the Stalin and Hitler took advantage of preexisting culture of credulity that any dictator worth their salt would have exploited!

Anonymous said...


I saw the original comment this morning that you deleted and thought it was a bit harsh, but here just want to give kudos for thinking twice and removing it.

Roger said...

"It wasn't until the eighteenth century that a consensus against slavery grew strong enough to start to put an end to the practice.

The root of that change wasn't thousands of years of pious acquiescence, it was the radicalism of the Enlightenment, the realization that we, not God, are in charge of our affairs."

The interesting thing is that the opposition to slavery took practical effect among religious followers- most notably the Quakers and some Anglicans- and was expressed in religious terms. Many Enlightenment thinkers were racist or supported slavery. Berkeley, Locke and Hume are examples. Whatever the connexion between the Enlightenment and the rise of anti-slavery sentiments, it was not simply the case that one caused the other.

prochoice said...

"In China you would be best to ask - why, after so many years of non-religion qould the people turn to religion?"
Answer is: craving security. Bureacracy is, when you experience it as a normal citizen, (or, always negative, a poor person) as wilful as a feudalistic state.
Lots of miniature emperors, and you´re not only at the mercy of them, but often also the battlefield of their infight.

And to escape - mentally, as a world view, and maybe to magically come true - you begin to buy into the all-powerful, benign god of catholic proselytation propaganda, or, into astrology of the western type. China´s own does not exactly give the "Manifest Destiny"- feel plus benign aspect only.
Western catholics go for esoterics/astrology just because of that, as soon as their experience becomes too stressful.