If you troll around the internet long enough you’ll run across an argument similar to this one: Hitler, Mao and Stalin were atheist and committed some of the most heinous acts against humanity, therefore atheism leads to mass murder and genocide. Theist frequently uses this argument when confronting atheist but is this really a valid argument? Are atheist doing themselves a disservice when saying something similar about Christian or Muslim related atrocities? We’ll explore this topic and more in this episode of C-Webb’s Sunday School!
History is complicated mostly because it’s hard to find an unbiased source although we do some archaeology clues that help us check the validity of historical documents. We don’t know the intimate details or thoughts of history’s main characters. We piece together a larger puzzle based on a few clues and try to create a coherent narrative surrounding a particular event or individual. In societies where information was strictly controlled, it’s even harder to paint an accurate picture. We know how terrible our memories are and the more time that has passed, the less accurate they become. I’m telling you this because it’s important to create a context when examining historical events. Whether it’s the Bible or Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, historical context matters. We are biased with our 21st century view of things, we can’t fathom the day to day lives of people living in ancient palestine or communist controlled Russia. All we can do is read about someone’s interpretation of those events. And there are many interpretations to choose from. I want you to remember this as we go through this discussion because it’s important to keep things in perspective and if done right, it will give you an entirely new appreciation for history and it’s role in shaping this world.
The narrative around Stalin, Hitler and Mao often portrayed by theist is of atheistic tyrants doing whatever it takes to squash religion and murder God. This may sound like hyperbole but here is how conservative wonderboy and best selling author Dinesh D’Souza frames this argument:
In the name of creating their version of a religion-free utopia, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong produced the kind of mass slaughter that no Inquisitor could possibly match. Collectively these atheist tyrants murdered more than 100 million people.
Now this is a tricky position for atheist to be in and it’s difficult to counter because who wants to come across as defending these three men? How many times have you wanted or even used the inquisition or crusades as an argument against theism? It’s difficult to not employ the same logical fallacies that theist use when referencing Christian or Muslim atrocities. However, given how often this argument is used I think it is important to know how to counter it and you can do it without appearing to defend these three deplorable men.
Looking back at the D’Souza quote, right away you can see what he’s trying to do. He’s taking three historical figures that have committed heinous acts against humanity and he’s correlating that with their atheism. I’m not here to argue whether or not the acts committed by these men were horrific because they most certainly were. What I am going to argue is that this line of reasoning is fallacious. You can see that with this short statement, he’s committing several fallacies such as straw man, poisoning the well and post hoc ergo propter hoc. What is important to remember is that we on the other side of things can fall victim to these same fallacies. I’m not looking to blame religion or atheism. What theist and atheist alike do is create this ‘us vs. them’ showdown. I’ll see your genocide and raise you a terrorist attack! Obviously this gets us nowhere. Have there been atrocities committed by theist? Of course! Have there been atrocities committed by atheist? I would say yes. Was it the atheism or the theism that caused the atrocity? That’s where it gets complicated for both sides and that is what I am going to attempt to work out over the course of this episode. Did atheism lead to the atrocities committed by Hitler, Stalin and Mao?
As I mentioned earlier, I want us to focus on the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy because it keeps popping up in these conversations with believers. It goes like this: A happened before B therefore A caused B. Immediately we can see why this is fallacious and this fallacy is at the core of the argument against atheism when referencing Hitler, Stalin and Mao. If you are thinking like a theist, then you would conclude that because of the actions of these three men and their lack of belief, atheism leads to mass genocide. To flip it around, if you are an atheist and you say the same thing as the theist, you are also falling for this same fallacy. History is complicated enough without trying to account for individual actions, political motives and personal beliefs when determining the cause of certain events, that’s why it’s so important to try to gather as many facts as possible and then make an informed conclusion.
No group wants to claim Hitler as their own unless your a Nazi sympathizers or white supremacist group but those groups are outliers. Even the German people have distanced themselves so far from that low point in their history, they have outlawed any Nazi symbolism within their borders. In the D’Souza quote, he clearly labels Hitler as an atheist and for good reason, christians like D’Souza want nothing to do with Hitler so they give him over to one of the least trusted groups in America. Too bad it’s completely false or as false as one can determine given the evidence we have which, as it turns out to, seems to be pretty damn good evidence. Now, no one knows the inner most personal thoughts of Hitler and if Hitler says he’s one thing, then we have no choice to but accept that claim. If Hitler says he was a Christian, then we must take him at his word, he was a Christian. An argument most christians employ when confronted with this claim goes something like this: “well, he wasn’t a true christian because no true christian would do what he did.” This is a good example of the no true scotsman fallacy at it’s finest. Again, we don’t know the personal innermost thoughts of Hitler but we do have numerous personal writings, speeches and quotes to reference to form our conclusions and the evidence is pretty damning.
Hitler was a Catholic and remained so up until his death. In his book Mein Kampf, he made frequent references to the creator of the universe and of an eternal providence of the universe. When Mein Kampf was written, atheism was a well established and studied philosophy and during my research of atheistic writings of the time, I didn’t come across any mentioning of a creator of the universe or eternal providence. You can make a case for this being a deistic thought and leave it at that but he speaks of an Aryan Christ which puts him squarely within the Christian camp. D’Souza claims Hitler was an atheist but based on what evidence? During the time when Hitler was coming to power in Germany, he clearly defined the enemies of the State and one of those was communism which was considered to be an atheistic philosophy. Here is a quote from a speech Hitler gave on October 24, 1933:
“We were convinced that the people needs and requires this faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out”
Here we have Hitler publicly declaring war and victory over the atheistic movement of communism. This destroys any argument that Hitler was an atheist. But wait, we do have more. Here’s an excerpt from Mein Kampf that hints at Hitler being a Christian:
“Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”
You can see clearly that he is using the language of a believer in God but more specially the Christian God. But still, the Christian can make the argument that Hitler never specifically called himself a Christian. He references the creator of the universe and the Lord but that can mean anybody, right? In a speech given on April 12th, 1922 there is no mistake that Hitler claimed to be a Christian:
“My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison. To-day, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed His blood upon the Cross. As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice… And if there is anything which could demonstrate that we are acting rightly it is the distress that daily grows. For as a Christian I have also a duty to my own people”
In this one paragraph Hitler makes reference to himself as a Christian four times. Make no mistake about it, when believers claim Hitler was not a Christian, they are lying. D’Souza is lying and any other believer who says this is lying. They are ignoring history and they are being purposely deceitful. I guess they are not true christians because true christians would never lie! However, I’m not going to play the same game as theist. I don’t think Christianity is 100% responsible for what Hitler did, the blame is squarely on his shoulders. He was influenced by Christian doctrine and even early Christian thinkers like Martin Luther in his hatred of the Jews but I don’t think Christianity led him to commit the atrocities that he did. It can also be said that Hitler was a sociopath and that maybe he had a mental illness or that he even saw himself as a demi-god, cult of personality type figure. All of these are plausible explanations for his actions. We have the benefit of hindsight and without question we can agree that what he did to millions of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and political revivals was deplorable by any standard but one thing is clear by all accounts, an atheist he was not.
It is abundantly clear the Hitler identified as a christian. It is also abundantly clear that Joseph Stalin identified as an atheist. The question then becomes, did his atheism lead to his atrocities? The christian apologist would say yes it did but if we allow them to make this post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, the atheist can make the same claim for Hitler, that his christianity led to the holocaust. Now we know this isn’t the case entirely with Hitler but is it for Stalin?
Stalin was born on December 18th 1878 in what is now Georgia and was raised in the Georgian Orthodox faith which is of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. There is really nothing in Stalin’s early life that soured him on religion. No abuse or persecution that I could find. When he was 16, he accepted a scholarship to attend the Georgian Orthodox Tiflis Spiritual Seminary but was expelled in 1899 after missing his final exams which was the official explanation but it’s rumored that his family could not afford the tuition. Stalin lived at a time of great civil unrest within Imperial Russia. He was a member of the working poor and the idea of social revolution was appealing and he soon discovered the writings of Vladimir Lenin, a revolutionary Marxist and this lead him to becoming one as well, joining the Bolsheviks in 1903. Stalin was heavily influenced by these revolutionaries and this played a significant role in his treatment of religion throughout Russia once he gained power.
Marxist-Leninist Ideology was the main motivator in Stalin’s actions. There is no denying that atheism played a significant role in Soviet Russia. Lenin felt that religion was a tool of the ruling class to control and exploit the populace. That it taught the people to be submissive to it’s exploiters and because of this, Lenin launched an all out campaign against religion. It’s important to remember that these men thought communism would lift an entire class of people, to bring everyone equal and any opposing ideology was an enemy and this included religion. They didn’t want competition, for the communist state was to be put above all else, even God. Lenin had this to say about religion:
Religion is one of the forms of spiritual oppression which everywhere weighs down heavily upon the masses of the people, over burdened by their perpetual work for others, by want and isolation. Impotence of the exploited classes in their struggle against the exploiters just as inevitably gives rise to the belief in a better life after death as impotence of the savage in his battle with nature gives rise to belief in gods, devils, miracles, and the like. Those who toil and live in want all their lives are taught by religion to be submissive and patient while here on earth, and to take comfort in the hope of a heavenly reward. But those who live by the labour of others are taught by religion to practise charity while on earth, thus offering them a very cheap way of justifying their entire existence as exploiters and selling them at a moderate price tickets to well-being in heaven. Religion is opium for the people. Religion is a sort of spiritual booze, in which the slaves of capital drown their human image, their demand for a life more or less worthy of man.
There is no doubt that Stalin used atheism as a tool to fight against the imperial rulers of Russia and used atheism as a tool in ensuring loyalty to the state. Here are some of the ways Stalin used atheism to further the state’s agenda. He had special atheistic education in schools, anti-religious propaganda, the antireligious work of public institutions, and discriminatory laws and terror campaigns against religious believers. Many religions were outlawed such as the Roman Catholicism, Eastern Catholic Churches, Baptists, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism. Thousands of monks were persecuted or killed and hundreds of churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, sacred monuments, monasteries and other religious building were ransacked.
Wow, that is pretty damning but no one is denying what Stalin did and no atheist I know is an apologist for Stalin nor do most atheist I know agree with what he did. Believers would be pleasantly surprised to know that most atheist would be against such oppression of religious belief. However, this isn’t an endorsement of religious belief, just that persecution is not the answer. We, as atheist, believe we have the superior ideas and that they will eventually win out using reason and logic not force. What is important to remember here is that Stalin used atheism as a tool to accomplish a task. If the majority of Russian’s were atheist prior to the revolution, I would assume he would use whatever belief system to propagate his agenda, which is communism. Case in point, Stalin endorsed several communist revolutions outside of Russia and one in particular was the Communist Uyghur Muslim separatist rebellion against the anti-communist Republic of China regime. He helped them establish the Second East Turkestan Republic of which Islam was the official state religion. Again, Stalin wanted to spread Marxism, not atheism.
It is also important to remember that Stalin created a huge Cult of Personality for himself and Lenin. He named cities, towns and awards after himself. He gave himself grand titles such as “Father of Nations”, “Brilliant Genius of Humanity”, “Great Architect of Communism” and “Gardener of Human Happiness.” He had statues of himself built and during World War Two, he had his name added to the Soviet national anthem. He became the focus of literature, poetry, music, paintings and film. He was credited with god-like abilities like the idea that he single-handily won the Second World War. It’s obvious that Stalin was perceived as a demi-god but a demi-god with an unstable personality. Combined with fanatical Marxism-Leninism and his insatiable lust for power, Stalin was able to use the State for whatever he desired and that was at the expense of millions of lives.
Let’s go back to the initial logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc. Stalin was an atheist, Stalin committed unspeakable atrocities, therefore atheism was responsible for these atrocities. On top of being bad reasoning, it’s factually incorrect. I have demonstrated that history is complicated and without going into every nuance of Stalin’s personality, it’s safe to suggest that he most likely was a psychopath. He used atheism as a tool to accomplish his goals. He tried to spread Marxism around the globe, not atheism. No matter how hard theist try, atheism was not the cause of Stalin’s atrocities.
I wish Mao had the same story as Stalin when it came to atheism but he doesn’t. I did some digging and I really didn’t find anything substantial when it came to his atheism. Make no mistake, he was an atheist but it doesn’t appear to have played a significant role in his rise to power nor did he use it as a tool like Stalin. It was just a product of his Marxist ideology. However, he is lumped into this argument so we’ll still look at his story and it can’t hurt to know a little history, right?
There are, however, some interesting parallels to Stalin and Mao and their radicalization into Marxism. Mao was born to a wealthy landowner in 1893 and described his father as a strict disciplinarian. His mother was a Buddhist and tried to temper his father’s strict attitude. Mao was also a Buddhist until he abandoned his faith as a teenager. During primary school, Mao learned the moral teachings of confucianism but later expressed his disdain for this type of thinking. He was an avid reader and studied the histories of George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte and was enthralled with their sense of nationalism and this helped fuel his desire for the same sense of nationalism for the Chinese people. Mao was also influenced by Marxist-Leninist writings and his was inspired by western writers such as Adam Smith, Darwin, Mills and Rousseau. He was the founder of the People’s Republic of China and acted as the chairman of the Communist Party of China until his death in 1976. Mao held some pretty radical thoughts and this one was inspired by Friedrich Paulson, Mao believed that strong individuals were not bound by moral codes and should strive for the greater good, at any cost.
Like in Russia, some in China were fed up with Chinese dynastic rule. Prior to the formation of the Republic of China in 1912, the dynastic rule ended because of war, bad treaties with the west and open rebellion. During this time, the chinese economy collapsed and widespread famine broke out killing between 9 and 13 million people. With central power in Hong Kong, a group known as the Kuomintang tried to form a constitutional Republic but being on an island and essentially separated from mainland china, the efforts were thwarted by the rise of the communist party. However, the Kuomintang and the communist shared a common enemy, the imperialist west and Japan and with the help of the Kuomintang, Mao was able to rise up a peasant army and institute land reform. With the Kuomintang laying the groundwork and trying to transform China into a modern democratic state, Mao and the communist had other plans. Soon Mao and his communist party began to gain more seats and control the left wing in the newly formed government. Mao ran as for the people and his main focus was on rural land reform. The Kuomintang didn’t care for this because most of them were wealthy landowners. Soon rural peasants began to rise up against wealthy land owners by taking control of the lands and killing the landowners. Not surprisingly, the Kuomintang were none too happy about this so in 1927, led by General Chiang, the Kuomintang broke their alliance with the communist party by marching to the communist held city of Shanghai and soon a full blown civil war broke out. For a brief period during World War Two and the Japanese invasion, the two sides banded together to protect the homeland but immediately resumed fighting once the external threat was neutralized. Eventually the Kuomintang were defeated and fled to Taiwan. In 1949, Mao proclaimed the foundation of the People’s Republic of China.
Let’s look at the numbers and they’re not pretty. It is estimated that under Mao some 40 to 70 million Chinese died. Once the communist party gained control of the government, they forcibly took and executed landowners, former Kuomintang officials and businessmen working for western companies. The land that was taken was then redistributed to the poor. Of the millions that died it is estimated that between 2 to 5 million of those were landlords and counter revolutionaries. It is also estimated that another 4 to 6 million were sent to forced labor camps where most perished. To further cement his power, Mao instituted execution quotas. He also cracked down on capitalistic elements within the government and large cities through a system of forced suicides and labor camps. Through a cultural revolution, Mao sought to crush any idea of western thought and capitalism. He did everything he could to maintain his power. Mao said this when it came to people committing suicide
“People who try to commit suicide — don’t attempt to save them! . . . China is such a populous nation, it is not as if we cannot do without a few people.”
To add to the already alarming death toll, between 1959 and 1962, a famine killed some 30 million Chinese.
The rise of Mao coincided briefly with the rule of Stalin but soon after Stalin’s death, a riff between the Chinese and the Soviets appeared because they were at odds with each other over the “correct” form of communism. Because both systems of government were founded on Marxism-Leninism and with the death of Stalin in 1953, Mao felt his form of communism was the correct form based on nothing more than seniority. The disagreement soon led to the Soviets withdrawing support for the Chinese and the two countries because frien-enemies.
We can know a lot about a person based on their actions and given the actions of Mao, it seems he wanted to gain and keep power through any means necessary. Mao was indeed an atheist but like Stalin, it wasn’t his driving force. Going back to the quote about him being above morals, Mao seemed to only focus on his present reality and shunned any notion of future plans. Aware of his mortality, he wanted everything to happen within his lifetime.
“People like me only have duty for ourselves; we have no duty to other people.” “I am responsible only for the reality that I know, and absolutely not responsible for anything else. I don’t know about the past, I don’t know about the future. They have nothing to do with the reality of my own self.”
He said this about his legacy and name
“A good name after death cannot bring me any joy, because it belongs to the future and not to my own reality.”
Mao held to the notion that only the here and now matter. During a trip to see Lenin’s body, Mao said that
the superb preservation of the corpse was only for the sake of others; it was irrelevant to Lenin. Once Lenin died, he felt nothing, and it did not matter to him how his corpse was kept.
Mao shared a similar storyline with Stalin. He grasped for power and held on to it with everything he had. He built a cult of personality and crushed all who stood in his way but you may notice that Atheism is not mentioned as his driving force. Radical Marxism was. Like Stalin, it wasn’t his lack of belief but his drive to be on top and rule and his belief in himself, that plus bad policies, yes men and poor management of resources. Mao’s reign was not defined by atheism but defined by his need for power. Like Russian politics, Chinese politics were also complicated but it’s safe to say that atheism had little to do with Mao’s actions and to this day, his actions remain controversial in that some of his actions did helped modernized China and make it the power that it is today and he also sought to bring the power back to the people by rallying the peasants and indoctrinating the youth. Mao is a complicated historical figure and to simply label his atheism as the cause for all that he did is intellectually lazy. As with Hitler and Stalin, the theist argument is also intellectually lazy.