It’s a conventional wisdom of too many atheists, especially the group dubbed the “New Atheists” that there is no such thing as militant atheism, and that atheism is a peaceful ideology, in contrast to religions, which they characterise as bloodthirsty and violent. That atheism has historically been correlated with, let alone directly responsible for, some of the worst crimes in human history is indignantly denied.
But contrary to the smug, self-serving propaganda of the New Atheists, militant atheism has been a very real and very violent stain on history. Dawkins might piously insist that no-one has ever been killed in the name of atheism, but this is illiterate and dangerous historical revisionism.
Sam Harris argues that “atheism cannot be held accountable for the activities of atheists in the same way that religion can be judged by its doctrine because atheism has no doctrines”. But Harris is making a false comparison. The correct antonym for atheism is theism, not religion. Theism is, quite simply, the belief that God (or gods) exists. Atheism is the opposite proposition: that God does not exist.
When Harris talks of “rituals, tenets, creeds, code or authority”, he is going beyond theism, and talking about religion. Religion and theism are so closely interrelated that most people see them as synonymous. But Harris is not most people. Philosophers are supposed to be precise in their use of language.
Religion is “a communal, transmittable body of teachings and prescribed practices about an ultimate, sacred reality or state of being”. This may or not involve theism (Buddhism, for instance, is a non-theistic religion).
Harris is comparing apples and oranges. If atheism has no doctrines, neither does theism. What Harris is actually talking about is ideology, defined as “an action-oriented system of beliefs”. Ideology is to atheism as religion is to theism.
Ideologies most certainly can be held accountable for the activities of their adherents, every bit as much as religions. Atheist ideologies are responsible for the enormities of their adherents.
Atheist regimes must be demarcated from secular. Secular regimes – such as most modern democracies – simply remove religion or atheism from the sphere of governance. Citizens of a secular regime are free to privately pursue religion, or have no religion. Atheist regimes, on the other hand, explicitly forbid theism and religion. Atheist regimes have been far rarer than secular regimes – and almost always characterised by brutality and oppression.
The most notorious atheist regimes have been those of communism. Communism’s record of violence, oppression and bloodshed is almost unsurpassed. Historians estimate that communism murdered 80-100 million human beings. Other ideologies may possibly have killed more throughout history, but the speed and scale of communist bloodshed remains staggering.
What is the relationship between atheism and communism? The New Atheists like Harris vigorously deny any, but the communists themselves beg to differ. “Communism begins where atheism begins,” wrote Marx. Lenin also insisted that “atheism is a natural and inseparable part of Marxism”. Chinese Communist leader Zhou Enlai also bluntly stated: “We Communists are atheists”. Even today, the Chinese Communist Party reiterates that its members must be atheists, and officials are adamant that China must promote atheism.
The Communists are absolutely clear: atheism is a prerequisite of communism. Obviously that does not mean that all atheists are communists. But it does mean that communism proceeds from atheism as much as religion proceeds from theism. Does it follow, then, that atheism must be held accountable for the crimes of communism?
Many of the horrors of communism proceeded directly from its atheism. Marx stated that “the first requisite for the happiness of the people is the abolition of religion”, and his followers put that prescription into brutal action. Under communist regimes, religions were not just outlawed, but violently suppressed. The League of Militant Atheists was established by the Soviets with the express intention of stamping out religion, not just Christianity. The League massacred and tortured clergy and believers, sent many more to the gulags, and destroyed religious property.
Nor was such violent atheism unique to the Soviet Union. In Spain, the Red Terror, which historian Stanley G. Payne characterised as “a semi-organized activity…of nearly all the leftist groups”, murdered more people in just three years than the Inquisition did in three hundred.
Wherever atheism has become the explicit policy of the state, from the French Revolution with its Cult of Reason, to Revolutionary Mexico, mass-murder and destruction have followed. This is no mere coincidence. The tenets of state atheism – as explicated by the Marxists – insist not merely that theism is false, but that religion must be actively extinguished. Even today, such mild-mannered proponents of atheism as Harris – inadvertently or not – license violence, with such statements as that “some beliefs are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them”.
Atheist denialism is as mendacious as Holocaust denialism, and irrational as Flat Eartherism. It’s also dangerous. This doesn’t make atheism itself wrong, but it does mean that atheists have a duty, to themselves above all, to be rigorously honest about the bloody past of atheism.