Atheists and Agnostics Compendium

Atheism and Evil States

The charge is repeatedly made that the regimes of Hitler and Stalin were atheistic and therefore atheism is responsible for horrendous crimes against humanity. The charge is false.  Leaving aside the questionable virtue of states governed by religious authority through the ages, forgetting all the slaughters of innocents by religious power, the charge against atheism needs to be answered.
 
It is not important if Hitler or Stalin were atheists (neither of them were) the important point is whether their regimes followed principles and practices that would justify the claim that those governments were atheistic?  To be atheistic is to be skeptical of dogma, to value independent thinking, to question authority and to make decisions based on reason. It is immediately obvious that any person openly advocating any of those positions under the despotic regimes of Hitler and Stalin would not live long.

The true characterization of the regimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and communist China is totalitarian not atheistic.  They have more in common with some systems of religion.

A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy with the dictator as God. Its ruling caste presents itself as being infallible.  There are “sacred writings:” Mein Kampf, Marx’s Das Kapital, Mao’s Little Red Book are examples. Uniforms, ritual, pageantry, crowds repeating the same words in unison – all the trappings of religion are adopted by dictators. Banning books, censoring speech and thought, condemning outsiders are characteristics of both religion in power and totalitarian states.

In contrast a true atheistic state would advocate rationalism not blind acceptance of authority.  No society governed by the principles of atheistic rationalism could be totalitarian.

Christopher Hitchens in his book “God is Not Great” (pgs. 230-252) gives an extended reply to the charge that atheism in Germany and in the Soviet Union was the cause of their atrocities.  Hitchens makes these points:

• The Vatican made an official treaty with Mussolini, the Lateran Pact of 1929. Catholicism became the only recognized religion in Italy.  Pope Pius XI described Mussolini as “a man sent by providence.”

• The very first diplomatic accord by Hitler’s government was a treaty with the Vatican on July 8, 1933 that gave the control of the education of all Catholic children to the church. In return the church instructed the Catholic Center Party to disband and ordered all Catholics to abstain from any political activity opposed by the Nazi regime.

•  In 1939, four days after his elevation, Pope Pius XII sent a warm letter to Hitler saying he would do “all in Our power to establish harmonious relations between Church and State.” The new pope ordered an annual celebration of Hitler’s birthday. There was no opposition by the church to any Nazi policies. They cooperated by opening parish record books to determine the Aryan status of individuals.

• As for the Soviet Union, although Lenin and Trotsky were atheists Joseph Stalin was trained to be a priest. Communism did not act to negate religion in favor of atheism but rather to replace it with blind adherence to authority of the Kremlin.  An infallible leader, the searching out of heretics, torture and forced confessions, rule by terror and the preservation of a revered leader’s body in a glass coffin are not indications of rule by atheists.

• Stalin gained control over a population that for centuries were ruled by czars who were considered to be the “fathers” of the Russian people. The people were trained to blindly accept a central authority.

• The situation was the same for Imperial Japan. The emperor was considered to be divine. The atrocities committed by his armies and the self-sacrifice of individuals were not done because of an absence of religion but rather because of its presence.

• Mao’s regime in China was another example of a totalitarian state rather than an atheistic one. When a dictator takes control and substitutes worship of himself or the state for worship of a god it is incorrect to call that state governed by atheism.

• What idea encourages the horrors committed by totalitarian regimes?  It is the condemnation of whole groups of people as outsiders who are not to be accorded human rights or dignity. Non-Aryans, counter-revolutionaries had to be eliminated. It is the same idea that religion has promulgated for centuries. By emphasizing prejudice against unbelievers in its practices and in its holy books religion must accept the responsibility for transmitting one of mankind’s worst ideas.  

 

Believers frequently defend their religion by claiming it to be Beneficial and lack of religion as evil.

Atrocities of dictator states that repressed religion are used as examples of the evils of atheism.

The falsity of this claim is discussed here.