Friday, August 24, 2007

Genocide and Atheism

I decided to post this after a little inspiration from “the other John”. You might know him better as The Spanish Inquisitor. If you have never checked out his blog, this would be a good time to do so. You could start by reading his post:

Atheism is responsible for the deaths of 100 million people in the 20th Century.
Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot killed millions of people in the name of atheism.
Atheism is the cause of the most repressive, murderous regimes in history.

Don’t prejudge it based on the title – As a free thinker, John would never take such a ludicrous position. He’s deconstructing it in a very effective style and I would not be surprised to see it end up on one of the secularist carnivals in the next few months.

One of his excellent points was,

“Atheism is not a movement. No government or country effectuates policy in the name of atheism. Atheism is not even a a proper “ism”. It has no guidelines, rules, tenets, or practices. It has no rituals, dogma, holy books or scripture. It cannot replace religion, because it is merely the vacuum created when religion disappears from one’s personal beliefs”

This is important when blaming anything negative on the atheism of the individual involved. Since atheism is not a belief, there can be nothing to kill “for”. Even if claiming that the person was doing so in order to enforce a godless society, then you run into this part of The Spanish Inquisitor’s rebuttal:

“Atheism in Stalin’s Russia, then, was a mere tool used by Stalin, for the greater good of the state, imposed on the structure of society. It’s effect was to strip away the power of the church to oppose his power. It was not a mere lack of belief in gods. Stalin could care less about the individual beliefs of the peasant, his focus was on destroying organized religion”.

Indeed, this is the case with all of the so-called atheist dictators responsible for genocide. I challenge anyone to go through their writings, or the writings of their biographers, and find any references to genocide on the grounds of a belief in god.

I agree with John on all of the points he scores so effectively, and yet I do think he missed a couple of things. So I’m going to look at two things in particular. The first is an extension of arguments against atheism that John has dealt with and how he (and I) might respond. The second thing I'll write about is my own method of dealing with this line of debate.

There are some reasonably good theistic thinkers who would quickly admit The Spanish Inquisitor’s points, and that arguing would be nothing more than logical fallacies. However, they would still reason that while the killings perpetrated by these leaders were not done specifically in the furtherance of atheism, it is still because of their atheism that their moral depravity reached the depths witnessed by the entire world. But this still leads to logical fallacy. The world has never experienced a government conceived entirely on the notions of Hume, Spinoza, Paine, Jefferson, Einstein and other free thinkers. I would love to see the grand experiment and would bet dimes to dollars that it would not end up in a genocidal regime. But such an experiment has never been done, so it’s impossible for the theist to argue that the result would be a negative one. Further, we have for millennia had societies run on one theistic notion or another. We know how poorly that has turned out. Again and again, throughout history, it’s been one warrior nation after another conquering and, in turn, conquered.

Now I come to my response to those who want to equate atheism with these horribly repressive regimes. The problem with everything that Spanish Inquisitor said, everything I agreed with him on, and everything I added is that we are, as usual, using the tools of reason and common sense in defense of our position. People who like to play games with logical fallacies to score points will simply keep ducking and slipping and, indeed, it gets to be, as John put it, a bit of “a schoolyard spat: 'Your mom’s ugly! Oh yea, well, your mom’s uglier!'”

There is a way to short-circuit all of the logical fallacies. It’s an argument I almost hate to use because it is based in cynicism. But there is no denying my cynical side. And so whenever this debate arises I nearly always go straight to what I call the argument of irrelevancy.

Let’s, for sake of demonstration, concede that the Stalinists, Maoist and, again quoting John, “the Polpotists” were not only atheists, but what they did was either for the promotion of atheism or because their minds were irreparably warped by atheism.

The supporter of "faith" has proved nothing by this!

Either it’s true that there is god, or it is not. We know there are bad atheists. We know there are good ones. We know there are good theists and bad ones. "God exists" is a true statement or a false one. Regardless of what some people do with their atheism, if there is indeed no god then so be it. There is no point in deluding ones self simply because some people are evil. It’s better to deal with the evil of man through the sweet fruits of knowledge than by the rotten fruit of superstition.

As a final note on the Existence/Non-existence dilemma: the average theist is in an even more precarious situation on this matter than the atheist. While it has to be one of the two ("god" or "no god"), this does not mean it's an even odds proposition. Billions of people have claimed "knowledge" of god and yet none have mustered an iota of scientific evidence that such an entity exists, while science provides some very realistic theories of life requiring no god. While an atheist can never claim to "know" that there is no god, we can and do claim that the odds are overwhelmingly in our favor, in the same way that we can't know that leprechauns don't exist, but the odds are in our favor. And even if god exists then also only one religion or possibly no religion accurately represents and honors god. So not only would all atheists be on the wrong side of the argument, so would every living and dead practitioner of every faith that has ever existed be on the losing end – save one. So for any one practitioner of a given faith - overwhelming odds that they are wrong and there is no god and then, if there is a god, overwhelming odds that they are not worshipping correctly.


UPDATE 8/27 - For further thoughts on the subject go to PhillyChief's blog, You Made Me Say It, and see "Valutation of an Idea".


John P said...

Brilliant John B! It a wonderful complement to mine.

I would not be surprised to see it end up on one of the secularist carnivals in the next few months.

I have a suggestion. Why don't we both submit ours to the same Carnival? They should be read together.

PhillyChief said...

You and Spanish Inquisitor and others have inspired me to start writing about the valuation of an idea and I'd welcome comments about it.


john t said...

In response (a little late, I see), I would state that when a man has no higher authority than himself, he has autonomy to be a bad deity. So Hitler build out of Nietsche's "If God is dead, then man must become superman . . . exert the will to power etc.", and created his Aryan super race with the right to be the ravening blonde wolves coming down out of the north that Nietsche talked about. Yes, bad things have been done by theists in the name of bad deities, and by theists who ignored their deities. But atheists who have no one higher to answer to are freed of conscience or accountability--after all, if I'm the fittest, why not survive. Futher, Spinoza was a unitarian, Jefferson was a Deist who very much felt that the Creator's laws should be binding (except maybe the bit about adultery), and Einstein was a theist who said that his little finger told him there is a God. Hume was a skeptic, and Paine was just depressing. As for "proving" that there is or isn't a God, science can't do either. I can say, though, that we assume that a house or a computer or anything else that's particularly intricate and gives evidence of design has a Designer--it's only when we come to the sum total of all intricacies that atheists then conclude (contra shakespeare) that something comes from nothing . . . Quite a logical leap.