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The question of atheism being responsible for atrocities

 
karamazov
 
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karamazov
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26 April 2009 20:27
 

The claim that atheism is responsible for things like Bolshevism or the communist regime in China or Hitler’s Germany is made often, but i have found that it is often easy to convince a religious person that those regimes were not in the name of atheism per say. They persecuted religion because it was a belief system that was a “competitor” to their own. The claim instead is if Christianity prevailed in those places, those other belief systems would not have come about. Christianity is kind of (universal, of course) anti-virus to such ideologies.

While I don’t believe that, I don’t have good words the refute something like this. It is a fact that in the face of Stalinism for example, Christianity might actually have had a positive effect. Even the middle ages were probably on balance an upgrade over Russia in the 30’s. I guess the point is that in the long run it’s not much better because it is still a belief system built on lies, even if it is better than some of its competitors. Is there something a bit more lucid or persuasive that could be said?

The point is less convincing when such an antidote involves stonings to death and wholesale exclusion of women from society, but in the case of Christian schools in China for example, it’s a harder thing to argue against.

The claim of “look what atheism is responsible for” doesn’t look as ridiculous as might seem at first with such reasoning.

To put it rudely, it’s like the special olympics, even if you win you’re still retarded. But you won’t win many debates with those words.

 
Rami
 
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Rami
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27 April 2009 02:19
 

“karamazov” date=“1240817250”]The claim that atheism is responsible for things like Bolshevism or the communist regime in China or Hitler’s Germany is made often, but i have found that it is often easy to convince a religious person that those regimes were not in the name of atheism per say. They persecuted religion because it was a belief system that was a “competitor” to their own.

I am not entirely sure that is true.  I am not sure that religion was consciously suppressed because it was seen as a competitor for power and control.  Karl Marx believed that religion was the opiate of the masses.  He believed that religion was a tool for the exploitation of the masses.  So, anti-theism was built into the communist doctrine.  This was the ideology that led communists to suppress religion.  I honestly think they were trying to do the right thing, to liberate *the people* from the oppressiveness of religion.  Of course, as we all soon found out, this made it so that the government had total control over *the people*, unchallenged by anything else. 

Anyway, my point is that communist countries did not persecute religion because they saw it as a competitor to communist ideology.  I don’t think this persecution was crafted with this agenda in mind.  I think it was the result of merely following the basic anti-theism of Marx.  It was an honest observance of the communist doctrine.

On the one hand, I am qualified to opine on this matter as I grew up in a communist country.  On the other hand, I may be talking out of my ***, as we left when i was 16 - not exactly aware of the intricacies of politics and the nuances of history.

I think it is important to point out, in debates with Christians, that warning us about the dangers of atheism by pointing out what *it* allegedly led to in Stalinist Russia is a straw-man argument.  Atheism, and even anti-theism, do not in any way necessarily lead to a totalitarian dictatorship in which religion must be suppressed.  And more importantly, nobody has been arguing that Stalinism is the way to go. 

So, if we put to rest this straw-man, let us consider what Sam Harris is advocating.  Has he ever said that we should ban religion?  Has he said that we should impose atheism on the rest of the country or the world?  Has he ever threatened to harm anyone who does not acknowledge atheism as the only way to go?  No.  All he is advocating is conversational intolerance of unreasonable claims.  If more people took this advice seriously, we might end up living in a more rational, less hysterical, society.  Would that be so bad?  As he has pointed out, the problem with the anti-religious campaigns in communist-controlled countries was not that they suddenly became too reasonable. 

It seriously bugs me when critics of the “Four Horsemen” wrote as if they have not even read their books.  They copy each other and keep repeating the same BS: “Oh, they are so strident, intolerant, just as fundamentalist as the Christian fundamentalists they criticize, extremists!”  Is it “extreme” to expect that claims be reasonable and not unsubstantiated?  How does one become a moderate on this issue?  We’d prefer that claims be substatiated, but if they are not, that’s OK, as long as they make you happy and give your life meaning?

The claim instead is if Christianity prevailed in those places, those other belief systems would not have come about. Christianity is kind of (universal, of course) anti-virus to such ideologies.

I am not sure I understand.  Christianity was indeed prevalent in those countries.  Russia was strongly Orthodox.  Bulgaria was the first Slavic country to convert to Christianity, in the 9th century.  After the liberation from Turkey, in 1873, it officially returned to its Orthodox roots.  But in the 1940s the communists took over and seemingly overnight turned Bulgaria into an atheist country.  It isn’t that Christianity was not prevalent and that is why atheism took over; what happened was that communists believed religion was a bad thing and that they tried to uproot it.

I believe that religion is a bad thing too, but I think it is important for people to have freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion.  I am a liberal.  I am an American.  I do not believe in oppressing anyone, subjugating anyone, forcing anyone to think just as I do.  And at the same time I am an atheist and an anti-theist.  So again, the idea that atheism naturally leads to Stalinist style oppression is a straw-man and a red herring.  It is a convenient, not well thought-out idea that theists like to throw out in conversations.

While I don’t believe that, I don’t have good words the refute something like this. It is a fact that in the face of Stalinism for example, Christianity might actually have had a positive effect.

Christianity was already there.  It’s not that in the absence of Christianity, Stalinism took control of people’s minds.  Stalinism was not something that won over the people.  It was something that was thrust upon them, with an iron fist.  It’s exactly like what happened when Christianity was taking over Europe.  It’s not that Christianity was overwhelmingly winning people over and thus one after another entire countries were conquered by the beauty and truth of the gospels.  Christianity was fored on the pagans and paganism was suppressed.  Look at what happened with the schools of philosophy.  Look at what happened at the Temple of Delos.  In Bulgaria it was a purely political move.  The tsar stamped out paganism with his sword.  Many people perished because they resisted Christianization. 

The claim of “look what atheism is responsible for” doesn’t look as ridiculous as might seem at first with such reasoning.

When they say this, ask them to provide you with atheist scripture according to which rounding up the religious and killing them is what we are supposed to do.  How exactly is it that atheism is actually responsible for the atrocities committed by Stalin?  How is it that unbelief in Zeus or Zoroaster is what led those people to commit those atrocities?  The atrocities committed by The Spanish Inquisition are directly attributable to Christianity and its holy book, according to which “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”  The persecution of “heretics” is diretly attributable and motivated by religion, but specific religious teachings.  And sure, one could argue that the communists’ oppression of religions could be attributed to Marx’ views on religion, but who said atheism=Marxism?  Who said anti-theism=Marxism?  Who said atheism is an ideology?  No I, not Sam Harris, not any non-believer I have talked to.

Again, when they bring up the argument that atheism is responsible for atrocities, it is a very poor argument, clearly not thought-out.  But it appeals to them because it points the finger away from them and towards us.  Rationalism, reasonable scrutiny (precisely what Sam Harris is advocating) is not what inspires or motivates atrocities.  The curious thing is that people will do anything to hold on to their delusions, to their way of life, to their identities - even try to turn the idea of being reasonable into a bad thing.

 
Non-believer
 
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27 April 2009 05:32
 
Rami - 27 April 2009 06:19 AM

I am not entirely sure that is true.  I am not sure that religion was consciously suppressed because it was seen as a competitor for power and control.  Karl Marx believed that religion was the opiate of the masses.  He believed that religion was a tool for the exploitation of the masses.  So, anti-theism was built into the communist doctrine.  This was the ideology that led communists to suppress religion.  I honestly think they were trying to do the right thing, to liberate *the people* from the oppressiveness of religion.  Of course, as we all soon found out, this made it so that the government had total control over *the people*, unchallenged by anything else. 

Anyway, my point is that communist countries did not persecute religion because they saw it as a competitor to communist ideology.  I don’t think this persecution was crafted with this agenda in mind ...

Come on, don’t bring me down. Communists knew that religion is a vary strong means of power, so they wanted to put the church in control. They offered the church a harsh deal, those who didn’t agree were destroyed. Part of the Russian church accepted the deal and they were put under control. Religious dogmatism taken advantage of by priests was a threat to communist dogmatism, because communists wanted to have a full control over people and not because they wanted to liberate people from religion. Communists grafted atheism on, but it wasn’t their not believing in God which drove them to do all the hideous things they did. Stalin being trained as seminarian when he was young perfectly conceived power of religion, he simply couldn’t ignore it wanting to have unlimited power over Russian society. He really didn’t care whether someone believes in God or not, what he was worried about was that priests could tell people some day that God doesn’t like Stalin, he had to make sure they wouldn’t do it. God had to see Stalin right or disappear

Unfortunately very few understand this.

 
 
Andrew
 
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27 April 2009 10:21
 
Non-believer - 27 April 2009 09:32 AM

Religious dogmatism taken advantage of by priests was a threat to communist dogmatism, because communists wanted to have a full control over people and not because they wanted to liberate people from religion.

(Andrew):  Precisely.  Religion is competition for any authoritative state.

 
 
nv
 
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nv
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27 April 2009 11:28
 
karamazov - 27 April 2009 12:27 AM

. . . It is a fact that in the face of Stalinism for example, Christianity might actually have had a positive effect. Even the middle ages were probably on balance an upgrade over Russia in the 30’s.


Karamazov, you seem to expect a positive effect to spring forth automatically from Christianity. But Christianity does not necessarily live up to its currently high ethical/moral reputation. The Church is an extremely diverse group of clubs whose members have little in common as far as how they might react to change in government or other social policy. Christians are not, in other words, more consistent in their reactive or contemplated morals and ethics. Sure, they talk a good game, and they even have ancient scriptures that shout out rules and laws and prohibitions. And yes, church members these days do a certain amount of charity work. But nonreligious people quietly support charities, too.

Can you describe a scenario that would have resulted in openly practiced Christianity having had a positive effect in the face of Stalinism?

 
 
bigredfutbol
 
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27 April 2009 12:40
 

As far as Christianity vs. Stalinism, it should be noted that in Russia ‘Christianity’ meant the Russian Orthodox Church—a very conservative institution with a long tradition of submission to, and support for, an authoritarian State.

 
 
eudemonia
 
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27 April 2009 13:07
 

‘Marxism is not, of itself, a totalitarian ideology.  It does not oppose christianity because christianity is an opposing totalitarian ideology, it opposes it because christianity is a mystical idealistic way of seeing the world which cannot lead to a concrete understanding of the world, and therefore cannot possibly be helpful in solving problems in the world.’


WOW!  More brilliant commentary from teu. All this and I cannot believe he did not add one of his quality photos or cartoons!

Just damn!

 
 
mpbrockman
 
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27 April 2009 15:05
 
karamazov - 27 April 2009 12:27 AM

The claim of “look what atheism is responsible for” doesn’t look as ridiculous as might seem at first with such reasoning.

Yeah, and Irish monks saved western civilization by preserving western texts and Islam saved the zero (is that what that song by the Fixx was about?)

Remember Sam’s thesis, though, that in regimes such as Stalin’s (or more the more contemporary Lil’ Kim in N. Korea) the leader/state took the place of a deity. Blind, unquestioning subservience to a “higher authority”, be it god or man, generally leads to pure f***ing evil.

 
 
Carstonio
 
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27 April 2009 18:34
 
Rami - 27 April 2009 06:19 AM

I am not sure that religion was consciously suppressed because it was seen as a competitor for power and control.  Karl Marx believed that religion was the opiate of the masses.  He believed that religion was a tool for the exploitation of the masses.  So, anti-theism was built into the communist doctrine.  This was the ideology that led communists to suppress religion.

The operative word here is religion. Marx and his heirs didn’t seem to make a distinction between religion and god-belief. They weren’t taking a position on whether gods actually exist, and they weren’t making Dawkins-like scientific arguments for the unlikelihood of gods. While I don’t know what their specific positions would have been on deism or Confucianism, I suspect they would tolerate the former and oppose the latter. I’m not arguing for defining atheism a certain way. I’m trying to pin down a distinction between criticizing god-belief as having no evidentiary basis and opposing religion because of the harm that its institutions and ideologies cause.

[ Edited: 27 April 2009 18:37 by Carstonio]
 
mpbrockman
 
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27 April 2009 19:35
 
teuchter - 27 April 2009 07:18 PM
mpbrockman - 27 April 2009 07:05 PM

Remember Sam’s thesis, though, that in regimes such as Stalin’s (or more the more contemporary Lil’ Kim in N. Korea) the leader/state took the place of a deity. Blind, unquestioning subservience to a “higher authority”, be it god or man, generally leads to pure f***ing evil.

Doesn’t this overlook WHY a populace (or significant portion) gives up “Blind, unquestioning subservience to a ‘higher authority?’”

Well, that’s the million dollar question. Point taken on those forced into subservience by threat of violence - I should have made the distinction - but when you ask “WHY?” in reference to those who choose subservience you’re asking a question I often find myself asking.

I can derive “answers” from tradition, apologia, psychological needs, the advantages of a pack mentality from an evolutionary standpoint et al, but nothing I would consider satisfactory.

 
 
Carstonio
 
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28 April 2009 03:49
 
mpbrockman - 27 April 2009 11:35 PM

I can derive “answers” from tradition, apologia, psychological needs, the advantages of a pack mentality from an evolutionary standpoint et al, but nothing I would consider satisfactory.

What kind of answer would you find satisfactory? I’m reluctant to use “satisfactory” as a yardstick for explaining things. That seems like the religious believers’ yardstick of emotion as a substitute for empiricism.

 
karamazov
 
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karamazov
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29 April 2009 05:21
 

Thanks for the replies everyone. Obviously this is my first post here, so I’m still figuring things out on the board.

First of all, I specifically did not mention Marxism because it is an ideology, or at least an idea, not something that actually exists anywhere. I’m aware of the fact that Bolshevism, Stalinism, Hitler, and Mao have a few differences between them here and there, but there is one thing they share – they are all political regimes that existed or exist, and that they are generally considered undesirable to have in a society. They are realities, which means something can be done about them, as opposed to simply philosophizing about their respective potential merits. That is simply the frame of the argument I was curious about. Nothing wrong with philosophizing in general.

I do now realize the “Christianity” I’m talking about needs to be better defined. This may not be specific enough, but let me try the following for argument’s sake (and I’m not much of a scholar on any subject, so this attempt may be futile) – a Protestant brand that has been popular in various incarnations in the states that emphasizes a) a person is an individual, along with clever references to the bible book Numbers b) individual action, that belief requires action c) general opposition to a church as an institution, with popes and bishops, and an emphasis on a direct relationship with god.

Not all Christians subscribe to these beliefs, and some who say they do are hypocrites, but there is a large number of people who do actually believe in exactly those points.

The question is – why is that not a panacea for world peace and prosperity in the face of the real “atrocities” that are taking place? Because lord knows there are many who believe it is, and I personally know some of them (which of course is in part why I care at all).

I guess this is more of a utilitarian argument, although religious people have a way of converting that into an absolute truth argument by saying that if something fits so well with what makes us happy, it has to be directions straight from the lips of our lord creator.

I think one of the answers is probably that none of these things are something that couldn’t, and isn’t being effectively brought about without getting religion involved. A lot of this is imply a matter of education and greater economic opportunities, and (hold the pitchforks) “encouraging” democracy. I addition religion brings a lot of baggage with it, like the potential to degenerate into subservient obedience and encouraging lack of critical thought.

Anyway, having written all this I realize it is a pretty general and inconsequential argument, but hey, it is the internets… forgive me.

By the way, teuchter, just out of curiousity, it sounded a bit like you had a fondness for Marxism or some related social ideology, was wondering if that was true. It’s the part where you say that Marxism opposes religion because it does not lead to a concrete understanding of the world and is not helpful in solving real problems.

 
eudemonia
 
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29 April 2009 13:16
 

‘I addition religion brings a lot of baggage with it, like the potential to degenerate into subservient obedience and encouraging lack of critical thought’


And… intolerance, discrimination, bigotry, xenophobia, homophobia, misogeny, ant-intellectualism, anti-science, apocalyptic worldviews, authoritarianism, moral absolutism and general delusion…

Yeah, religion brings a lot of baggage with it alright.

 
 
mpbrockman
 
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29 April 2009 15:01
 
Carstonio - 28 April 2009 07:49 AM
mpbrockman - 27 April 2009 11:35 PM

I can derive “answers” from tradition, apologia, psychological needs, the advantages of a pack mentality from an evolutionary standpoint et al, but nothing I would consider satisfactory.

What kind of answer would you find satisfactory? I’m reluctant to use “satisfactory” as a yardstick for explaining things. That seems like the religious believers’ yardstick of emotion as a substitute for empiricism.

Nitpicker. OK, then. Change that last phrase to “nothing I would find logically consistent”.

Or perhaps “nothing that meets my (admittedly subjective) standards of critical reasoning”.

While we can try to achieve purely objective empiricism. I think we’re still stuck with POV, experience-derived (and yes, emotional) biases when making analyses of traditions, apologia etc. It (objective empiricism) is a wonderful standard to aspire to - but not, in my view, wholly realistic.

 
 
Carstonio
 
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29 April 2009 19:09
 
mpbrockman - 29 April 2009 07:01 PM

While we can try to achieve purely objective empiricism. I think we’re still stuck with POV, experience-derived (and yes, emotional) biases when making analyses of traditions, apologia etc. It (objective empiricism) is a wonderful standard to aspire to - but not, in my view, wholly realistic.

It’s the aspiration that’s important. Trying to live up to that standard brings about much more good and much less harm than treating emotional bias as equivalent or superior to empiricism. Sometimes it seems like religions treat emotions as sensory data themselves and not reactions to data - that fits Salt Creek’s statement in another thread that philosophy regards cogitation as perception.

 
mpbrockman
 
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29 April 2009 19:39
 
Carstonio - 29 April 2009 11:09 PM

It’s the aspiration that’s important. Trying to live up to that standard brings about much more good and much less harm than treating emotional bias as equivalent or superior to empiricism.

Agreed.

...aaand sometimes a bitch.  smile

 
 
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