Some modern militant atheists like to claim things like “religion ruins everything.” Or that the planet would be so much better off without a belief in God. An obvious response is to point at the horrors perpetrated by explicitly atheistic political movements in the twentieth century to claim that actually, things get much worse – atheism ruins everything.
Some atheists have attempted a rebuttal. This is the idea that Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong were not “real” atheists, communism and fascism are not genuinely atheistic, and neither were their followers, and that their ill-deeds cannot be laid at the feet of atheism. The first time I encountered it, I incorrectly imagined it was just one person’s confusion. Apparently, this is not so.
Christopher Hitchens advances the argument in the above clips.
It is a nice example of the self-sealing fallacy – also known as the “no true Scotsman” fallacy.
A Scotsman reads of a horrific rape and murder in London and tells his wife that no Scotsman would do such a thing. Subsequently, it is discovered that the rapist/murderer is John McDonald of Aberdeen. The Scotsman replies that no “true” Scotsman would do such a thing, thereby making himself immune to counterexample.
The fallacy involves someone making an empirical claim, then refuted with an empirical counterexample, then the original claim is converted into a tautology, making it immune to counterexample. Tautologies are true by definition, not as matters of fact. Bachelors are unmarried men by definition.
Hitchens and other new atheists make an empirical claim – human affairs would have proceeded much better if religion had never existed. A counter-example is then provided. There have in fact been large-scale political movements based on explicitly atheist principles. The result was between 100 and 200 million deaths. It turns out that religion probably has an ameliorating effect on human behavior.
So, a factual claim is met with a factual rebuttal. The fallacy then involves showing that the counter-example is not a real counter-example. Hitchens’ argument is that communism and fascism are not real atheistic movements because their leaders came to be viewed as being godlike and their followers proceeded to worship them; i.e., the atheism in the counter-example is not “real” atheism. This converts the original factual claim into a tautology – something that is true due to the meaning of words. The original claim is then true by definition and immune to counterexample.
The new atheist is right. The atheistic political movements that have occurred have adopted features of pagan religion. It turns out that this is what happened when this was attempted. The religious impulse seems to be ineradicable. If it cannot find an outlet in God, it will erect a substitute, known as idolatry. If not God, then the greatest happiness for the greatest number, progress, science, the Enlightenment, social justice, the singularity, immortality via computers, will take His place. Human beings need something to worship and they need a larger meaning. Without it they sink into depression, nihilism and, potentially, suicide.
Berdyaev writes that “Without the idea of God there can be no idea of man.” If man does not share in the divine nature and possess ultimate value, then some value will be held to be higher than man, and man will be treated as a means to an end; an expendable nothing of no supreme importance to be used as a pawn in the name of creating “happiness,” the social good, the well-being of Mother Russia or the Fatherland.
The ubiquity of the religious impulse is an empirical claim about how human beings work. It is well-supported by the evidence. Hitchens, Dawkins and the others have the aim and ambitions of religious proselytizers out to convert the masses and to save them. If they did actually get rid of God, they would not know what to do with themselves. They are as God-fixated as the most fanatical religious zealot.
Communist sympathizers sometimes argue that “real” communism has not been tried because Marx’s fantasy was that after a brief dictatorship of the proletariat, pure, blissful anarchic living was to emerge, where the state and the military were no longer necessary. This never ever happened. It never happened because communism as dreamed of by Marx is a fantasy.
Two results of atheism have been communism and fascism. Atheists, generally speaking, it turns out are unable to remove their religious tendencies and they find substitutes. The substitutes turn out to be much worse than the real thing. With no God in heaven, we come to treat our fellow man as gods and resent them for it. With no God to worship, we worship money, or success, or something else. This is what atheism looks like in practice. Without Christianity and official religion, we just revert back to pagan behavior – not consistent, thorough-going nonreligion.
Atheism would be a great boon. Communism and Fascism? They are not real atheism because those things are not a great boon. They are a pagan religious nightmare. Correct! Now you are starting to get it!
Hitchens et al could be interpreted as saying that were it humanly possible to truly eradicate the religious impulse even from the hearts of atheists like him, this would be a great boon. Since this would involve removing ourselves from the human condition, this will have to remain an unprovable counterfactual. We do not know what an individual non-suicidal person would look like under such a description. On a mass scale we just find religion substitutes such as the passion for “social justice” followed with the utmost zealotry by some and the return of pre-Christian pagan scapegoating. An atheistic society that does not devolve into politically correct conformity, where academics must overtly embrace “diversity and inclusion” to be hired, in the same way that Oxford university used to require attestations of religious adherence, and the scapegoating of the successful, is an unknown phenomenon. It seems likely that it cannot exist. Certainly, it has never existed.
The real, complicated history of Man’s relationship to religion
It is true that the history of humanity contains all sorts of very brutal behavior. Religion is likely to be involved in many instances at least in part because all human cultures have had religious foundations without exception. This would suggest that the existence of human culture is thanks to religion. René Girard argues this – though it comes about through the false sacred. A scapegoat is credited with sowing universal destruction, and thus God-like power, and then murdered. His murder unites the mutually antagonistic parties creating peace, again in a God-like fashion. Christianity reveals the scapegoat mechanism for the first time in human history but awareness of the mechanism is partial at best and has taken a long time to enter human consciousness on a wider scale. Thanks to the reduced cultural significance of Christianity, in tandem with social media, we are seeing one sacrificial crisis after another with an ever-expanding list of corpses as the flash mobs descend on one person after another to disembowel them.
Scapegoat victims are neither demons nor gods. Human culture arose from their innocent bones. This is highly unpleasant to say the least. The victims should not be forgotten and we should do our best not to repeat this behavior. The question then becomes, can humans unite on the basis of love instead of hatred and not let mutual antagonism get out of hand? It might be that Christianity means the end of human culture.
Atheists bond together in shared hatred of theists and vice versa.
History is an odd discipline because it cries out for counterfactual experimentation. For example, some historians like to blame the Treaty of Versailles for WWII. At most it might have been a necessary condition, but obviously it was not sufficient. To test this claim it would be necessary to remove the Treaty and see what happens. The new atheists would need to do something similar with religion.
Human beings have a strong tendency to be violent because we imitate each other including other people’s desires and this puts us in competition with them. We become rivals – twin brothers. A key myth is of Cain and Abel. One brother makes an effort and is met with success. The other brother tries hard and fails. Cain looks at Abel in resentment – the key human sin. Resentment combines love and hatred. Cain wants to be Abel – but there is an obstacle – a stumbling block, a scandal, called Abel. Abel is already Abel. He occupies the space that Cain wants. Cain wants Abel’s being. Frustrated and resentful, Cain kills Abel.
Resentment is not an invention of religion. The false sacred creates the scapegoat mechanism in order to solve outbreaks of violence that otherwise would spiral out of control with no logical end – e.g., centuries long feuds. True religion reveals this mechanism in an act of revelation – Jesus’ crucifixion; the murder of the innocent victim.
False religion is a solution to an aspect of the human condition. Thus there are reasons for thinking that the history of humanity would have been much worse without religion. Since wherever humans go, religion goes with them, the two will be associated. The claim is that, as hard as it is to imagine, things would have gone worse without it.
A crucial point of contention between theists and atheists is what happens when organized religion ceases and the idea of God as the focus of worship is abandoned.
There is no evidence that atheism is sustainable on a large scale for any length of time.
Jews and Christians claim that man is made in the image of God. He has an immortal soul and participates in creative activity by wresting order out of chaos, finding the good, the true and the beautiful. Theists have faith that the universe and life have meaning and purpose. They must then find the meaning that can justify the suffering that is a necessary part of the existence of a finite being.
The sacredness of human life and of creation then become the basis for a workable morality and moral realism; God or moral nihilism. If this is true, an atheist who uses morality as a standard by which to accuse religion of being evil is helping himself to something inaccessible by his own lights.
Marxism as a bastardized, atheistic Christianity
Socialism is not merely an economic theory. It is in active competition with theism (as of course is atheism).
Karl Marx simply restated the Judeo-Christian emphasis on compassion for the weak, the poor and the suffering while introducing two evil innovations. One was to make any help for the poor to be a matter of state compulsion with massive taxation and redistribution of wealth from the successful to the unsuccessful undermining the incentive to work hard and succeed. Russian communists took evidence of success as a sign that a person was an oppressor and murdered the Kulaks, successful, hardworking peasants, as the first order of business. And indeed, communism reduces all to relative poverty as could be seen with East vs West Germany. Social justice warriors follow this same logic with predictably similar results.
Thus Marxism succumbs to the Three Temptations of Christ as described in the Bible and by Dostoevsky. In the Brothers Karamazov, Jesus refuses earthly power and to feed the poor on an ongoing and permanent basis. Such a state of affairs would make the poor beholden to the state to which they would willingly sacrifice their freedom for the promise of free food. Christianity, properly understood, involves complete freedom.
Marxism also reinstates scapegoating as a central tenet. Myths take the point of view of the mob; true religion, of the victim. The proletariat are the mob and the bourgeoisie are the victims. The persecution of the innocent is thus built into the system. When this fails to unify the populace in shared hatred for long, new classes of enemy, “enemies of the revolution,” are found and the scapegoating continues on an industrial scale.
Thus Marxism explicitly rejects religion as the opium of the people while returning us to pre-Christian scapegoating and taking volunteeristic charity and creating a giant bureaucracy reducing the population to servitude in the name of fairness and equality. It is a bastardized religion.
In Russia, with no God to worship, Stalin promoted himself and was treated as man as God. Likewise with Chinese communism and Mao Zedong.
German fascism also competed with religion. It adopted features from pre-Christian paganism – namely the creepy slogan of “blood and soil” and the scapegoating of Jews. It too was socialist and nationalized industry. Since the Jews tended to be very socially successful, they could be accused of belonging to the oppressor class just like the communists’ bourgeoisie.
Contemporary atheists engage in all sorts of religion substitutes. Ray Kurzweil rejects a Christian afterlife but does not give up on the Christian hope for eternal life. He is as obsessed with immortality as the most true believer but with computers as the medium for downloading his consciousness. Personally, I find nothing good, true or beautiful about his ambitions.