Faced with the violence condoned and encouraged by organized religion, some believers are eager to point out that atheists are equally violent, if not more. In fact, some suggest that atheism is at the root of the worst atrocities in recent history, like the regime of Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong.
While it’s true that Stalin and Mao were corrupt leaders who denounced religion among their people, suggesting that their depravity was caused by atheism or that their behavior was at all indicative of atheism as a whole simply does not follow. Similarly, the idea that atheism is somehow uniquely responsible for despotism is clearly false. History is filled with examples of the religious whose beliefs were directly responsible for murder and violence (1). Yet such direct relationship has not been seen with secular tyrants. If anything, non-religious dictators themselves act more like religious zealots, elevating themselves as deities in the cult of personality they’ve developed.
Atheism Has No Doctrines
The violence within Christianity or Islam can often be traced back to the teachings of those religions because it is embedded in the ideology of the religions themselves (2). Even though war and violence in the name of God are often motivated by non-religious ambitions, such as political and territorial gain, religions in such cases are often used as an excuse for justifying such acts, disguising their intentions as holy and recruiting armies of people who would not have been willing to risk their lives for purely secular causes (3). People throughout history have been martyred and sacrificed in the name of religion, and holy wars have been fought over the tenets of those religions.
The same cannot be said of atheism for the simple fact that atheism is not a religion. Atheism is a lack of belief in deities. It has no governing dogmatic principles, no rule book and no core ideology. Comparing atheism to religion is like comparing apples and oranges. It’s more helpful to compare atheism to theism, which is simply belief in a deity. While some theists also hold fundamentalist beliefs, just believing that some god exists is not enough to cause wars and violence based on the belief alone. How many wars have been caused by deism? You’d need some additional dogmatic beliefs in order for that happen.
No one commits mass murder in the name of theism or atheism alone. Additional dogmatic principles are needed to justify such grisly outcomes. In the case of theism, religions like Christianity and Islam provide such dogma, creating convenient excuses. Secular totalitarian regimes and religion share this dogmatic element: a belief that a set of ideas are true because an authority figure says so and that questioning those ideas can lead to serious or even deadly consequences.
Therefore, it’s not reasonable to say that atheism condones or promotes violence or that tyrants have killed in the name of atheism. Such actions or any other action, both good and bad, do not and cannot speak for atheism in general, as no two atheists necessarily hold any of the same beliefs or convictions about the world. The only thing held in common between all atheists is a lack of belief in deities.
This means that some atheists are undoubtedly unkind, aggressive and violent. It also means that some atheists are kind, friendly and peaceful. Any type of person can be an atheist, just as any type of person can be not interested in golf. Just because some non-golfers are jerks doesn’t make not golfing bad any more than atheism can be blamed for the behavior of a handful of atheists. If you’re trying to make a decision about whether you believe in God based on how a certain non-believer you know acts, you’re using flawed reasoning. For the same reason, not all religious people are bad or cruel individuals, yet the practice of violence and war is deeply imbedded in many religious ideologies. It is, therefore, best to examine your views about God or other religious beliefs by evaluating the evidence provided for such claims, not based on the behavior of people who do or do not accept it as truth.
The Cult of Personality
It’s true that the tyrannical communist regimes of Mao and Stalin were opposed to religion, with religious belief discouraged and punished under their rule. This had less to do with atheism and more to do with the threat of religion as competition with their own tyrannical plans. Totalitarian regimes are built on dogma and fear, not freedom of speech and inquiry. In this way, they greatly resemble religion. In effect, these leaders essentially created religions and inserted themselves at the top as new deities. As Sam Harris put it, “The problem with fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions.” These cults of personality are not derived from atheism, and it is hard to see how one could argue that their activities were representative of atheists as a whole. Indeed, many free, irreligious nations, such as Denmark and Sweden (4), are among the most peaceful and prosperous countries in the world (5). The point, however, is not to say that atheism necessarily causes people to be happier or more prosperous. What is clear, however, is that atheism does not lead to violence, tyranny or genocide any more than religiosity guarantees a peaceful and prosperous nation.
The world’s religions have rules and holy books that tell their followers what’s wrong or right and how to behave. Thus, it is reasonable to hold a religion accountable for the message that it preaches. There are no holy atheist scriptures, no atheist pope and no atheist rituals, tenets, creeds, code or authority. 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.
- Hitchens, Christopher. God is not great: How religion poisons everything. Random House LLC, 2008.
- Ellens, J. Harold. The Destructive Power of Religion: Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003.
- Juergensmeyer, Mark. Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. Vol. 13. Univ of California Press, 2003.
- Zuckerman, Phil. "Atheism: Contemporary Numbers and Patterns." In The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (Cambridge Companions to Philosophy). New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
- State of Global Well Being. Gallup, 2013.