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Meditation 358
Atheist Atrocities? I don't think so.

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I've noticed an increasing tendency for some of the relatively recent horrors humans have inflicted upon each other to be blamed on atheism. The tens of millions of deaths that can be laid at the doorsteps of Stalin, Hitler, Mao Tse Tung and Pol Pot have been attributed by various religious commentators to the "fact" that they were following atheist ideologies. And I have seen it stated that the deaths caused by the rules of these 20th century tyrants exceed those for the various religious conflicts over the entire history of mankind.

I understand why this argument is being made. Those of us who disbelieve regularly point out the persecutions and atrocities throughout history that have arisen out of religious differences, and the tens of millions of deaths that have occurred as a result. So, for believers, turnabout would seem fair play, and thus eminently reasonable to point out those mass deaths caused by non-believers.

However, there are a couple of problems with this approach.

First of all, to claim Hitler was an atheist is disingenuous. The Nazi ideology was grounded in part on a mishmash of mystical and pagan beliefs, not atheism. And Hitler himself remained a member of the Catholic Church until he killed himself. Also, while there is no question that some Protestant and Catholic Germans bravely opposed the Nazi regime, far more were silent, or actively complicit in its depredations. To blame atheism for the crimes of Hitler is simply false.

Now let us consider the others, all following their particular interpretations of Marxism. There is no question that tens of millions of deaths occurred under Stalin, Mao Tse Tung and Pol Pot. But, is it fair to blame the official atheism of the regimes for these deaths? The fact is that the killings occurred to promote the Marxist ideology and totalitarian rule, not to promote disbelief. The central issue was political power, not religion. Had the Marxism been combined with Catholicism, as it is in liberation theology, the millions of deaths would still have occurred. Atheism was not the significant factor.

Over the several millennia of civilization, humans have organized[1] the killing of hundreds of millions of other humans. The causes have been many. Competing territorial desires, nationalism, and religion have probably been the main motivators.

There is no question that wars, genocides, and atrocities have arisen out of religion. But, none, to my knowledge, have arisen specifically out of atheism, or agnosticism.



  1. Just to differentiate this variety of mass killing from those murders which have been on individual initiative.