Sunday, July 15, 2012

weaselly arguments about atheists and atrocities

Update: Blogger has been screwing up my formatting in random ways lately, so if you're reading this on Google Reader, click through to the actual post, where I think the post looks okay. I may have to go to a white background ...

While I'm in the atheist-bashing mood, here's another area where I think we are often less than charitable toward our religious interlocutors. It's what I call the Argument of Atheist Atrocities (AAA), and I actually think we owe it to our selves and religionists to take a little more seriously than we normally do. AAA goes something like this:
(1) Some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century were carried out by atheists, so
(2) atheism must be inconsistent with a morality that values human life; therefore
(3) atheists cannot be trusted with political power and atheism should be minimized.
Now, as any atheist worth her salt will point out, this argument is logically flawed because it conflates correlation with causation. Atheists further make the following points, (Here are examples) where the structure I'm using loosely follows the first link.

Usually even before addressing the correlation=/=causation issue, atheists will quickly and proudly point out that Hitler wasn't actually an atheist, (because religionists applying the AAA almost always include him as an atheist.)

Next, the atheist will say that, while the mass murderers Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were atheists, they didn't slaughter anyone because of their atheism. Instead, they rigidly enforced unscientific or irrational dogmas like communism, and furthermore most or all of those regimes involved cults of personality. So really they were more like religionists, because religion is irrational, unscientific, and often dogmatic. Meanwhile religious people have often killed in the explicit name of their faiths, citing scripture while they're at it. This would seem to imply that atheism itself cannot be held accountable for just about anything, since atheism is strictly speaking only the lack of belief in any gods and makes no claims about morality or politics.

Sometimes the atheist will even say that none of the above even matters in a debate about God's existence, because even if atheism did somehow cause a deterioration of morals and lead people to commit atrocities, it would have no bearing on the question of whether God exists. While this is trivially true, it's a hell of a bullet to bite. While I may not actually be mentally capable of believing in God even if I wanted to, learning that widespread atheism led (somehow) to the ascension of murderous totalitarian regimes would certainly cause me to rethink arguing the case for atheism.

I find most defenses against the AAA, at least as they are commonly presented, arrogant and a little weaselly. So I'd like to try to capture what this line of argument sounds like to a reasonable religious person.

Yes, a reasonable Christian might say, the AAA is a fallacy as commonly constructed, but maybe it can be recast to reflect the concerns charitable religionists really have. Maybe something like this:
(1) Some of the worst atrocities in the 20th century were carried out by atheistic regimes;
(2) while this implies nothing about the moral character of individual atheists,
(3) it is consistent with concerns that religion, among other societal institutions, plays a pivotal role in maintaining social order and forging bonds within a community,
(4) This raises the question of whether societies that reject religion are, by some as-yet-not-well-understood mechanism, more likely to fall victim to violent pogroms than religious societies.
(5) This question is admittedly different from the question of God's existence, but it is still relevant to debates about the practical, utilitarian value of atheism.
At the very least, this possibility should give a responsible atheist a moment's pause. Evidence from the natural and social sciences that religion is an evolutionary adaptation suggests that eliminating religion from society in a top-down manner could have unintended consequences. And the 20th century was not the first time an atheistic regime proved murderous; elements of the French Revolution were explicitly anti-theistic.

At the end of the day, I do think the AAA falls short of convicting atheism, but it succeeds in knocking the wind out of arrogant atheism. Atheists are right that it's not the atheism per se that caused all the bloodshed of communism or the French Revolution. In each case there was a utopian vision that human nature could be radically and suddenly changed and the structure of society could be restructured according to that vision. Steven Pinker describes in the Better Angels of Our Nature how utopianism can lead to mass murder:
One [way utopian ideologies invite genocide] is that they set up a pernicious utilitarian calculus. In a utopia, everyone is happy forever, so its moral value is infinite. Most of us agree that it is ethically permissible to divert a runaway trolley that threatens to kill five people onto a side track where it would kill only one. But suppose it were a hundred million lives one could save by diverting the trolley, or a billion, or--projecting into the indefinite future--infinitely many. How many people would it be permissible to sacrifice to attain that infinite good? A few million can seem like a pretty good bargain.

There's a lesson to be learned here. Just because atheism isn't directly responsible for violence doesn't let atheists off the hook. Atheists rightly pride themselves on their rationality and the ethical advantages of being free from scripture-based morality, and they criticize religion not just for being wrong about the facts, but also on the utilitarian grounds that religious dogma often demonstrably leads to repression and suffering. But atheistic rationalism and humanism clearly offer no special protection from deadly ideology. Ice-cold rationalism can be made consistent with torture, and the French Revolution was built out of a humanistic Declaration of the Rights of Man. 

The point isn't that atheism should be avoided, but that we all need to practice a little more humility and charity. A better response to questions about atheist atrocities is to acknowledge that, yes, atheists as well as religious people can fall under the influence of dangerous ideologies. Then we can point out that widespread atheism is perfectly compatible with peace, prosperity, and humanist values, as exemplified so capably by the secular countries of northern Europe.


  1. Thoughts that again tie in with the "conversion experience" stuff I was rambling about the other day. I would venture that many atrocities happen when fanaticism overwhelms humility (especially if it happens at the top of a military structure). And a common part of the first post-conversion stage is that fanaticism overwhelms humility.

    It seems that another major cause of atrocity is *paranoia* at the top of a military structure. I'm only a mediocre student of history, but wasn't that really the problem with Stalin? Ditto on Idi Amin? Paranoid nutjobs can be atheist, Muslim, Christian, or any other religion (except Neopagans of course: we're all completely normal, well-adjusted people.) If paranoia is the force driving the atrocities, then utopian ideology (of theist or secular bent) doesn't come into it.

    [ps: I think your gReader problems were related to copy-pasting quotes from other blogs, and weird style settings coming with. This one came through fine. If only gReader and Blogger were run by the same company, maybe they could get them to play better together!]

  2. I don't know ... I think the whole premise of the AAA is deeply flawed and can be scuttled by the unassailable fact that, when it comes to atrocities in the name of belief systems, atheists have one whole hell of a lot of catching up to do. They may have jumped to the front on number of dead, but that is more of a coincidence of timing than a matter of intent.

    Dave M.

  3. It's hard to dismiss The League of Militant Godless or the Jacobins of the French Revolution. These were Atheists in action, motivated BY Atheisim, not politics, greed, etc. But regardless of which side kills more, Religion has done much, much more good for the world than bad, a fact given little analysis by many high-profile modern Atheists. Surprised how many people don't get the simple math here. Look me up when you see the Hitchens Children's Hospital or the Dawkins Shelter for the Homeless.

  4. Garet,

    For example,

    Comparing the amount of good done in the world by atheists and believers is difficult to do, since for most of history atheists have closeted for their own safety.