Often times when atheists criticize religious believers for the atrocities done by theists that are explicitly condoned in the Bible or some other holy book, the theist will turn around and point out that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were all atheists and imply (if not state outright) that all atheists bear responsibility for their crimes. This of course is not just fallacious, but also quite ridiculous.
While it is true that Stalin and Mao were atheists and that they did not believe in any deities, it is also true that they did not commit their immoral acts because of something they read in the “Gospel of Richard Dawkins” or in “The Holy Book of Atheism.” The reason for this is because there are no such books. The problem with the implication is that the theist is equating atheism with a religion. But there is no doctrine of atheism. All atheism is, is a lack of belief in deities. There are no holy atheists and there are no infallible atheist books laying out dogma and doctrine.
Stalin and Hitler also both had mustaches. Does that mean that mustaches cause tyranny? This is where the theist will often assert that the lack of belief – or more accurately the lack of fear in God acts as a restraint on human’s natural sinfulness. This is a really poor argument for multiple reasons.
First, there are religious tyrants too. So the fear of God doesn’t really restrain anything or anyone. In fact, there are more religious tyrants than non-religious tyrants and with good reason. It is easier to demand obedience from people when you invoke a supernatural authority complete with rewards and punishments in an unverifiable afterlife.
Second, this argument assumes that humans are naturally evil. This is what the Abrahamic religions often preach, but that doesn’t make it true. The fact is that people are not evil wretched creatures in need of salvation. Most people are genuinely trying to do the best they can but get sidetracked and disillusioned along the way.
Stalin and Mao might not have believed in any gods, but they certainly believed in blind faith and obedience – two key virtues of religion. In fact, they used those “virtues” to their advantage and soon began to believe that they were themselves deities. I don’t know if you can technically call them atheists any more at that point.
That brings me to Hitler. While no one can really know what someone actually believes in the privacy of their own mind, Hitler certainly did claim to be a god-believer more so than Stalin and Mao claimed to be non-believers. Hitler made speeches claiming divine authority and cited scripture to back up his beliefs. He also had some pretty strong ties to the Catholic Church and made sure that God was mentioned on Nazi uniforms. Plus, Hitler was notorious for seeking out Biblical relics that he thought might give him a military edge – just watch the Indiana Jones films. Seriously though, there is some historical truth in that aspect of those films.
Obviously, this does not mean that all Catholics are responsible for Hitler’s atrocities although, it was a popular Catholic belief that the Jews killed Jesus and Hitler definitely bought into that and used that to fuel the hate toward the Jews which directly led to the holocaust. Still, it would be fallacious and ridiculous to blame current Catholics who don’t hold that belief responsible for Hitler’s actions. Yet religious believers seem to have no problem painting all atheists with this kind of brush despite that fact that those in the greater atheist community tend to have humanist values that are the direct opposite of those espoused by Stalin, Mao, and Hitler. Plus, not all atheists have mustaches either.
Sam Harris put it best when he said:
“The problem with fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions. Such regimes are dogmatic to the core and generally give rise to personality cults that are indistinguishable from cults of religious hero worship. Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields were not examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma; they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run amok. There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.”
Finally, This whole “Hitler, Stalin, Mao” thing is really just a distraction from the original criticism. The fact is that many religious believers have a horrific track record both in the past and in the present of committing atrocities not just in the name of their religion, but directly because of their religious beliefs. Pointing the finger at atheists doesn’t absolve religious believers of this very obvious fact.
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