Responding to the ‘Atheist Crimes’ of the 20th Century

Written by February 3, 2009 4:12 pm 20 comments

We’ve all heard the accusations. Stalin, Pol Pot and even Hitler are used so often to counter the moral arguments against religion, that most of us have an answer practiced and ready. I’ll go over some of the common responses to the accusations. Obviously your individual approach must vary depending on the person you’re talking to, so pick your arguments carefully.

The Question:

A Bob Row caricature

This is usually how it begins. You’re talking to someone about religion, a friend or relative, and you point out religious wars as a reason for them to reconsider their faith. Sometimes the question pops up at this point. Other times the person says something to the effect “Its not religion that’s responsible, its the people craving power who are using religion to their own ends”. So you bring up all those people who truly believe that they are acting in the spirit of their religion. Then comes the question: “What about all those millions killed by the atheists in the last century? Science has been used to commit crimes against humanity” And then the self-satisfied “gotcha” smile, if they’re feeling particularly triumphant.

1) The “Dogmatic Ideologies” Argument:

The most common answer I’ve heard is this:

What you say about those atheists is true but it was Communism and other dogmatic ideologies that caused those evils. Religion being one of those dogmatic ideologies, it is on par with Communism and Nazism.

Despite it being a common response, this is a very effective response to use when dealing with most smart people. However, the average religious person may not be aware of the difference between ideology and an evidence-based system like science. The person may not see the similarities between dogmatic belief systems like Nazism and religion, but just the differences. More seriously, they often see atheism as itself being a dogmatic belief, and some may even try to turn the argument on you by suggesting that it is atheism that is more like communism. This could lead into a whole different argument, on the nature of dogma and the value of evidence, which would lead you away from the primary debate.

2) The Numbers Argument:

This is also often used in response to The Question. Simply put, it involves a detailed revisiting of the facts and numbers of the atrocities committed by these leaders of the last century. This is then compared to the number of people killed in the colonization wars, the inquisitions and other wars that are associated with the spread of religion. Often the debate leads into questioning the religious motivations of Hitler and the connections of the Nazis and the Italian fascists to the Church. Even Stalin was born and raised a Catholic, and Hitler had ties to the Church and is known to have used religious justifications for his genocidal actions.

This argument is useful when used along with the previous argument, on a certain type of person. Without the previous argument it is unconvincing, and often too laborious.

3) The Argument from Causation – I:

The argument from causation is my favorite response to The Question. It says “Religions call for much of the violence attributed to them. The people who cause the suffering quote the passages that lead them to commit those atrocities. Atheism has no such causative effect”.

Although this is my favorite, it is quite a useless response. People by instinct understand very little about causation and correlation. However, if used along with Part -II of this form of argument along with the dismissal of correlation, given below, it may be valuable.

4) Dismissal of Correlation:

Both Stalin and Hitler had mustaches. So, are mustaches responsible for killing millions?

This line not only pokes fun at the silliness of The Question by dismissing the evidence from correlation, but also presents it in the right context here. This must be followed up with an explaination of the difference between correlation and causation. Quoting religious scripture to “honor” a killing- that’s causation. Mustaches and atheism- that’s correlation.

Use this argument along with both arguments from causation and you will have a tight case. Don’t expect to convince any hard believers with this, though.

5) The Argument from Causation – II, Moral Atheism:

Often the first argument from causation leads to a debate on morality in general. So, with some people it may be best to start with this conversation first. Otherwise, you may consider this as an extension of the first argument from causation. Essentially this is it: Atheism is not a belief system on its own, let alone a moral belief system. As has been suggested multiple times by others, we are all atheists about something or the other, i.e., we don’t believe that some things are likely given the lack of evidence for their existence and the amount of contradictory evidence in the observable physical world. For example, most Christians are atheists when it comes to most Gods. Our actions are not determined by what beliefs we do NOT have, but by the ones we do.

The real answer to the morality dilemma is that moral behaviors are both genetic and culturally learned. Just because we don’t subscribe to supernatural religions, it doesn’t mean that we should not have a thorough moral education. In very secular countries like Iceland they have moral education in school, up to the university level. As the influence of religion fades, we must incorporate secular values as well as humanistic morals into society. This is the basis for systems such as Secular Humanism. Religions evolved to function as a form of culturally enforced morality in primitive times, but now with its influence waning we can fine tune our moral culture to reduce suffering.

6) The “Informed Consensus” Argument:

This is the least intuitive and most complicated argument, so use this only on the most philosophically-minded of your debate opponents. It is actually a philosophical offensive against the religious form of morality, and an extension to the previous argument which was a defense of secular morality. Basically, this argument cedes that morality is not absolute. This terrifies religious people, and even a few atheists. Our moral beliefs are constantly changing depending on the cultural circumstances and our knowledge of objective reality. Although the religions preach absolute morality, most religious people ignore the more culturally inappropriate of the teachings. Yet, they refuse to see that morality is an ever changing idea.

Whether in politics or in society, agreement and co-operation is the only way to establish a moral society. But why Informed Consensus, not just any kind of consensus, like religious consensus for example?

The two parts are equally important. The idea is that uninformed consensus is as dangerous as informed tyranny. Humans are capable of tremendous good, provided they are informed. This information is required to be able to empathize with those who are suffering. It is lack of knowledge about the feelings and causal circumstances of others that often leads to an unjust society. It is true that in the past science was used to justify horrendous crimes. But our knowledge has evolved. Today, it is the most informed among us who are aware of the common origins of humanity and the mutual good or suffering that humans are capable of inflicting. But the science alone is not enough. A secular moral education is needed to complement the information got from science with the desire for consensus.

This argument rebuts one important criticism of science- the fact that Nazis and slave owners have

Design by Xiangtao

Design by Xiangtao

used science to justify their targeting of other races. When science and reason was used by the Nazis to justify ethnic cleansing, they did not extend the debate to include Jews in the consensus. When science was used by slave masters to justify slavery by suggesting that people of African descent were mentally inferior, they were not extending to the slaves the right to participate in that determination, nor in the the right to pick their destiny. No scientist argues that science alone is enough to see a moral society. No atheist must argue that evil will end when religion is dead. But put science and moral education together and we will be on our way to a better society. Without religion we will rid society of much of the ignorance that caused so much suffering and hatred.

We often hear about human rights from people of all denominations. What folks often forget is that human rights is the product of centuries of rational thought. It has become universally recognized (among the educated), at least in theory, that all humans are genetically related and are potentially capable (as groups) of equal suffering, violence and kindness. It was not any religion or any political dogma that achieved this recognition of human sentient value. When religious leaders unite people of different beliefs under a cause, it is always after reason has already established that the groups involved have a common interest. Is it not time we reminded the believers of the fact that they owe the rationalists for this coming together of humanity?

Religions functioned in primitive societies by building some consensus on social and cultural issues. Bits of useful moral codes were incorporated into them as they evolved. In today’s world where multiple religions come together, the absence of verifiable objective information in religion leads to much suffering. The quackery of “religious medicine” and the inherent bigotry of some creeds are examples. Informed consensus is relatively easily achieved in today’s world.  Why not try to reach consensus using the common language of reason? We have the ability to rid society of much suffering, if only we come together as one and reject those superstitious beliefs that divide us.

I’d love to hear about any other arguments you may have in response to The Question

This post was written by:

- who has written 62 posts on Nirmukta.


  • When it comes to numbers (those killed by religionists vs those killed by atheists) it must be remembered that the religionists had a substantial head start. Atheists have been, and still are, a minority. But the twentieth century very well illustrates the rabid ferocity with which they too are capable. Put on a ‘deaths per decade’ scale, I suspect the homicidal atheists are easily on a par with over-zealous believers.

    As for being driven by ideology, I suspect that Quakers and Buddhists are as noble and praiseworthy as most secular humanists.

    • You aren’t interested in facts. Either that, or you didn’t read the article. You are making the same correlation-causation mistake that I pointed out in the article. You might as well be talking about mustaches. The rabid ferocity and homicidal nature are primal emotions very much associated with fundamentalist religionists and political despots, not with people of reason. Simply using such colorful language to paint atheists are nefarious will not work. You need to show a causal relationship before making such baseless and frankly silly accusations.

      The fact is that the majority of atheists are progressive and peaceful, while the majority of fundamentalist religionists are conservative and prone to in-group out-group violence and destruction. Tens and sometimes hundreds of people are killed everyday in religion-related violence.

  • what destroys the argument of “atheist crimes” and hitler is…. HE WAS A FUCKING CATHOLIC…..

    • Hitler had a mustache. That is why he did what he did. If he had done away with the mustache, he would have been ok. The atheistic view is really this ridiculous. If you tell yourself something enough, you eventually believe it. Cmon a’s clean it up will ya.


      • This isn’t about moustaches, but about the dubious correlation between some traits and some behaviors. The moustache illustration in the above article was brought up to point out how ridiculous it is and how it is an example of dubious correlation. Here is the same idea in pictures and maybe easier to understand.

  • In reply to
    Responding to the ‘Atheist Crimes’ of the 20th Century
    Hitler & Stalin’s association is with Christianity is a slap on the face of Christ. They were simply opposite to Christ’s character. They have merely used the religion as a tool to fulfill their political goals. The same agenda we can see in world politics especially in India, other South Asian countries, Middle East and USA et al. Atheists love calling them religious oriented and religious people denounces them. And considering the character of these individuals which mismatch with the propagator of the religion to which they belonged they cannot be called religious. Rather such immorality in exploiting in the name of religion shows they had no respect or faith in the religion i.e. they disbelieved it which makes them more atheist as far as the religion is concerned. Same applies to all such politicians and leaders exploiting in the name of religion.

    The phrase Christian atheist is a contradictory as a person can either be a Christian or an atheist. Being Christian does not mean belonging to a religion but believing in the principles of Christ, being like Christ, manifesting Christ-like behaviour. Of course that way. true Christian population will become negligible and same applies to other religions as well. But that’s what the truth about religious is, a true religious man will manifest the perfect and most evolved nature of man which is termed as God by most religions and misunderstood as an external entity by general population.

    Culture as you are talking about always has the impact of religion. So just proving the point that religion shapes morality. But it is individual choice to be moral and immoral. But with people of lower education, religion has mostly been successful is establishing morality. A atheist when chooses to be corrupt has nothing to fear about except law of land but a religious has the fear of god as well which keeps a moral check on him.

    Morality is definitely not a constant factor but is ever-changing and ever-evolving. But there are certain aspects of morality which are absolute despite the circumstances. A willful act of crime is always worth punishment no matter on what intent it was done except for self-protection (here self includes individual, country and humanity). With growing understanding of nature an evolution of mind (in some cases devolution though) definition of morality changes as the logic of the mind changes but in no way it can violate human existence and existence of life in general. For Arjuna the war of Kurukshetra was immoral but Krishna explained it logically and made it moral to Arjuna. But Krishna himself refrained from active warfare as considering his mythical powers it would have been immoral towards the enemy depriving them of a just defense. This is what slave owners and Nazis lacked the power if judgement. They lacked it because they never understood the meaning of religion hence were not moral.

    The author has quoted them as religious just to make his argument which is quite vague.

    Secularism definitely cannot be equated with communism, but when secularism promotes disbelief that itself becomes its religion. This is what your forum does and this is where the dogma of secularism lies.

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