Feb 19, 2011

Is Atheism to blame?

As a result of my post yesterday, I received a number of mostly friendly tweets from ‘new atheists’ questioning whether Christianity really was the force for good in African society that the atheist Matthew Parris argued it was. Part of our debate centred on a fact I took as a given that soon became apparent was not shared by those who opposed me.  It was this: atheism, as a worldview, has stood behind the greatest atrocities and evil committed in the history of the world.

The new atheists I engaged with were quick to blame religion for all sorts of evil but could not see why I wanted to respond in kind when it came to atheism.  The response I met with was ‘no-one kills in the name of atheism’.

How does the argument work for the new atheist? It seems to be something like this, only allow a cause to be responsible for an act of evil where the action can be directly and immediately attributed to the cause.  Then and only then can the cause be blamed. So for example a terrorist who cries ‘God is great!’ as they detonate the explosive vest they are wearing clearly shows that religion is not great! But, so the argument goes, atheism does not stand behind acts of evil in that direct way so atheism is not a cause of evil in the world like religion.

But my new atheist friends have missed something in this attempt to exculpate atheism and it is this; ideologies may be rightly held to account where acts of evil are indirectly attributable to an ideology and especially where that belief has been consciously, consistently and even perhaps deliberately adopted by a regime or group or individual to justify acts of evil.

Now clearly it’s not enough to say because person A holds a belief B and that therefore their action C must have been caused by B. So it is conceivable that someone might claim to be a Christian and  commit murder and for someone to thereby try and tie the two together.  But of course it won’t work because Christianity calls murder a sin, Jesus called on his followers to be prepared to suffer injustice, to turn the other cheek, to NOT retaliate or seek revenge. Those who murder are no friends of God and certainly no followers of Jesus, they are guilty of identity theft! Rather they can expect nothing from him but condemnation for their sin. It has failed the consistency test.

But it is beyond dispute that atheism was a consciously adopted ideology that led to a number of governments to commit acts of evil that far outweigh any charge that can be leveled against religion (although please note I am not seeking to clear ALL religion of some sort of foundation for acts of evil merely demonstrate that atheism cannot be cleared of such a charge itself.)

Vickor Frankl was a survivor of Auschwitz. He wrote this:

If we present man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present him as an automaton of reflexes, as a mind machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drive and reactions, as a mere product of heredity and environment, we feed the nihilism to which modern man is, in any case, prone. I became acquainted with the last stage of corruption in my second concentration camp, Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment – or, as the Nazis liked to say, “of blood and soil.” I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.

So it seems to many that there exists an indirect but evident link between the nihilism that atheism tolerates (notice atheism does not in and of itself promote nihilism it merely tolerates it as entirely consistent with atheism) and the attrocities of totalitarian regimes of the 20th century.  This statement in no-way  suggests that all atheists are nihilists or that atheism must necessarily lead to evil merely that it allows it by creating an intellectual foundation through the sweeping away of categories of good and evil, right and wrong in exactly the way men such as Richard Dawkins and Kai Nielson as atheists recognise.

So Dawkins writes:

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication some people are going to get hurt other people are going to get lucky and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it nor any justice.  The universe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless existence.  DNA neither knows nor cares DNA just is and we dance to its music.

The philosopher Kai Nielson writes:

We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view or that really rational beings unhoodwinked by myth or ideology need not be individual egoists or classical amoralists.  Reason does not decide here.  The picture I have painted for you is not a pleasant one.  Reflection on it depresses me.  Pure practical reason even with a good knowledge of the facts will not take you to morality.

And such ideology was used by those tyrants of evil to justify their actions as Frankl witnessed.  Hitler himself said:

I free Germany from the stupid and degrading fallacies of conscience and morality…We will train young people before whom the world will tremble. I want young people capable of violence – imperious, relentless and cruel.

So is atheism to blame?

In one sense the answer of course is ‘no’. Atheism does not tell you to murder your own people by the millions as Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and Kim Jong-Il have done but it’s tenets have been put to a perfectly consistent and logic use when used by regimes to  justify mass-murder as Frankl not only observed but was forced to endure.  A godless universe is one of ‘blind pitiless indifference’ one should not be surprised to find atheists using that reality to justify ‘blind pitiless indifference’ in their treatment of their fellow men.

Contrast that with Christianity.  No one can with any consistency follow the teaching and example of Jesus and commit acts of evil.


  • Good post. Evangelical Atheists do like to forget about the restraints of certain beliefs, which means if you reject that belief, you reject that restraint (just like I eat pork – not because I’m a Christians, but because I’m not a Jew I’m free to do so).
    I suspect this is the point where someone quotes Dostoyevsky?

    Hitler was certainly inspired by Nietsche, but he wasn’t an Atheist per se – he saw that as far too communist. Rather, his view of ‘god’ seemed to be a mixture of this ‘ubermensch’, with pagan and germanic mythology mixed with a healthy does of his particular view of the German national identity.

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Neil Powell, Neil Powell. Neil Powell said: New post: Is Atheism to blame? http://bit.ly/eGs0AA […]

  • I like your post as it is less biased and more open-minded. As a reader of many theist papers, blogs and posts, I have a greater respect for your words. I do not quite understand your reasoning when you talk about a godless world. In a world without religion, I would expect people to have less respect for their fellow man, but not more hatred and violence. Theists say they don’t kill because they believe in the commandment “thou shall not kill”, there is an underlying morality among all humans. I believe people who kill others believe their purpose is more important and/or may have a biological behavioral adnormality. An individual does not just wake up one day and think “there is no god so I am gonna kill some one today”. It was as early as Australopithicus that our ancestors began to care for one other.

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