Alonzo Fyfe, of the excellent Atheist Ethicist blog, wrote, a a few days ago, a post called The Hitler and Stalin Cliché. As Alonzo writes, that cliché
[...] is the argument that there is something fundamentally and foundationally wrong with atheism because Hitler and Stalin were atheists – and look what they did.
Alonzo’s post, in a nutshell, says the following: that it’s useless for atheists to give “history lessons” to believers, since they a) don’t really care about history or any of those pesky “facts” stuff, and b) they are already inclined to distrust atheists (they see us as “enemies of God”, “servants of Satan”, and so on). Besides, he writes, by saying “but Hitler wasn’t an atheist!”, you are, in a way, implying that, if he were, you would be responsible for it. According to Alonzo, that’s the point we should address: that atheists aren’t responsible for Stalin’s purges, much like modern Christians aren’t responsible for the Inquisition and the Crusades.
I can’t disagree with any of the above. However… I feel that Alonzo may be missing the point of what the theists’ accusations really mean.
It’s not a question of guilt by association. They’re not blaming us for Stalin’s atrocities. What they’re saying is that atheism leads to atrocities like Stalin’s. And that point, I think, really needs to be addressed.
Now, the detail we go into depends on whom we’re talking with. Talking to a believer who is honestly trying to understand atheists and atheism is completely different from defending ourselves from someone who demonizes us and accuses us (and “godlessness”) of being the cause of all the evil in the world. (In fact, arguing with the latter is probably a waste of time.)
We can say, as Alonzo indeed writes further down his post, that atheism says nothing about morality. All it means is that there is no God, therefore, pleasing a deity — or being afraid of it — shouldn’t enter into our decisions. Atheism isn’t a set of moral rules — and it isn’t meant to be. In my opinion, that needs to be explained to any honestly curious believer.
Now, if we accept the above, then when someone says that “X did something bad because of his atheism”, he or she can only mean one thing: that there was no fear of eternal punishment preventing the atheist from doing that. As I said in Without belief in an afterlife / fear of hell, how can people be moral?, that’s a pretty lousy source of morality, and only makes believers look bad, since the implication is that they would be stealing, raping, killing, and committing all other kinds of atrocities if they weren’t afraid of hell. And, so, they believe that that’s exactly what atheists do all the time, since we’re not afraid of divine punishment. That’s what they’re implying when they use Stalin as an example of “atheist morality”.
The point should not be, indeed, whether Stalin was an atheist or not, but whether his actions were in any way related to his atheism. Since atheism says nothing about morality (much like “Santa isn’t real” doesn’t), I say that they weren’t.
Interestingly, there are actually many parallels between Stalinism and Abrahamic religions, including rituals, the worship of a father figure, pictures of Stalin (or Jesus, or a cross, or…) in every home, the acceptance of a lot of irrationality as non-questionable dogma, and a deep distrust of scientists, intellectuals, and of skepticism in general. After all, a religion doesn’t really need a supernatural element… and I think I could build a case for Stalinism as a religion. But I’ll leave that for a future post.
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