Atheism doesn’t kill people, Fanaticism kills people

January 12, 2010

We humans do deserve harsh judgment. Some religion can be used for evil, while nonbelievers can be evil too. Still, religion cannot show that god exists by complaining that nonbelievers tend to be more evil. Prisons are full of religious people.

No evidence of ordinary criminality rampant among nonbelievers can be found. In a desperation move, atheism gets blamed for modern warfare. You’ve heard the familiar tune — Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were atheists, they all were responsible for terrible mass murder; therefore, atheism is responsible for terrible mass murder.

Let’s see — religion’s defenders ignore 8,000 years of religious mayhem by many millions of believers, in order to pick out three recent non-Christians? It is just hypocrisy to think that such an argument over evil won’t work both ways. Maybe fanaticism is just fanaticism and that’s what gets people killed. No one excuses those recent psychopaths for their evil deeds, but atheism doesn’t deserve to get blamed.

We need a moment of logical clarity here. Six points:

First, pointing to Hitler, Stalin, or Mao as consequences of nonbelief cannot help demonstrate the existence of God. If anything, such tragedy suffices as evidence against the existence of the Christian God (see the problem of evil).

Second, Hitler was religious, hated atheism, and most Nazis were Christians [see Steigmann-Gall, The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919–1945 , 2003], while atheist Stalin and atheist Mao eradicated millions for totalitarian power, not for atheism. If Stalin and Mao had been religious, they would have murdered all the same (consider the Catholicism of France’s Napolean or Italy’s Mussolini).

Third, some perspective over centuries is needed. For example, the deaths from African colonial wars and slave trade, the genocide of American Indians, and the Napoleanic Wars (all conducted by millions of Christians) together approximate the 20th century numbers attributed to two atheists.

Fourth, communism is lumped together with atheism, as if atheism is responsible for communism. Wrong again. Capitalism is responsible for communism, especially that sort of predatory capitalism endorsed by most 19th century Christians which enslaved men, women, and children in lethal factories and sent them to an early grave. Fanatical communism was an overreaction to unrestrained capitalism, and humanistic Christians reformed capitalism in the early 20th century. That titanic political struggle was between religious people dealing with modern industrial wealth, and not about atheism (the number of 19th century atheists wouldn’t have filled an athletic stadium).

Fifth, the sheer numbers of 20th century dead are appallingly large, but that mostly reflects more murderous weaponry and bigger populations to kill. Not even secularization could be associated with such killing. Democratically secular countries are the least likely to engage in wars or destroy its own populations [see Rummell, Statistics of Democide: Genocide and Mass Murder since 1900 , 1998]. 

Sixth, religion cannot complain that science is responsible for a modern world more immoral or warlike. Pre-modern eras were pretty brutal by any standard. Those in supreme power have always used science and technology for murderous ends. Christian kings used the finest weaponry of their times to kill as many as they could, and a Christian President was the first to drop nuclear weapons on civilian populations. Political struggles tend to overpower religion or even co-opt religion’s involvement (see the American Confederacy, Northern Ireland, or the Middle East).

Religion’s defenders are better off pointing to the way that many religions, including Christianity, have been moderating into more humanistic and democratic forms. Neither atheism nor religion, by themselves, kill people. Fanaticism, the drive to absolute power, kills people.  While religions historically are proven facilitators of fanatical intensity (far more than atheism ever possibly could), there is hope for the future. Blessed are the peacemakers, who hold a God to a higher moral standard, and atheists are glad to remind everyone that moral standards come first.