A few weeks ago, completely unrelated research led me to find two people, on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, saying roughly the same stupid thing for roughly the same stupid reason.
In this corner: Dinesh D’Souza, noted Christian right-wing crackpot, purveyor of intellectually bankrupt media (the “book” The Roots of Obama’s Rage, the “documentary” 2016: Obama’s America), and illegal campaign donation conspirator. In a really poorly written 2006 op-ed for The Christian Science Monitor, he makes this argument about the [clicks on reverb] horrors of atheism:
These figures [pertaining to the death toll of the Inquisition] are tragic, and of course population levels were much lower at the time. But even so, they are minuscule compared with the death tolls produced by the atheist despotisms of the 20th century. 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.
In this corner: Reza Aslan, noted Muslim left-wing crackpot, purveyor of annoyingly readable but nevertheless intellectually dishonest media (the books No god But God and Zealot), and trumpeter of questionable credentials. In a frothy-mouthed 2014 missive against arch-nemesis Sam Harris disguised as an op-ed for Salon, he makes this argument about the [clicks reverb back on] horrors of a(nti-)theism:
Atheists often respond that atheism should not be held responsible for the actions of these authoritarian regimes, and they are absolutely right. It wasn’t atheism that motivated Stalin and Mao to demolish or expropriate houses of worship, to slaughter tens of thousands of priests, nuns and monks, and to prohibit the publication and dissemination of religious material. It was anti-theism that motivated them to do so. After all, if you truly believe that religion is “one of the world’s great evils”—as bad as smallpox and worse than rape; if you believe religion is a form of child abuse; that it is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children”—if you honestly believed this about religion, then what lengths would you not go through to rid society of it?
I think I’ve done it… I’ve cracked the code that will bridge the gap between the secular left and the religious right. First, you take the dominant type of far-left liberal (the ones who describe themselves as “spiritual,” don’t really practice any religion, yet keel over prostrate at even the faintest whiff of religious veneration from others; you know, out of respect), and the dominant type of right-wing nutjob (the ones who are one bad election away from holding rallies to burn every known copy of Dreams from My Father while reciting the Lord’s Prayer). You put them in a room together, and you say, “These other guys? They don’t respect any religions. And guess what? Neither did filthy pinko commies or—wait for it—the Nazis!”
There’s just one problem. All that stuff they’re saying about gleefully slaughtering innocents in the good name of atheism? It’s not, um… Well, it’s not actually true. It’s a few disconnected facts—Hitler, Stalin, and Mao slaughtered a lot of people; two of the three were atheists; and the jury’s still out on what the third really thought—jammed together to make a dishonest case against the morality of atheism. Both D’Souza and Aslan have completely different agendas. D’Souza strikes me as too much of an idiot to realize what he’s writing is even factually incorrect, but he wants to score points with conservative Christians (he may find this insulting, but he gets the long end of the stick here). On the other hand, Aslan—to whom I’ve devoted far too much blog space already—seems too smart for his own good. Pathologically committed to presenting Islam in its cheeriest, most peaceful connotation (to make even its most off-putting facets palatable to the secular left), Aslan knows exactly what he’s saying, and likely even knows how intellectually dishonest it is. It’s just that, when someone attacks his belief system, he needs to attack theirs right back. He can’t let people like Sam Harris hurt the Muslim brand.
Before I really get into this, I want to say a little something about science and secular humanism. Last week, I was home with stomach flu, barely able to get out of bed, unable to concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes. It led me, at long last, to find a use for Twitter and Facebook. I spent a lot of time scrolling through my feed and clicking links that sounded interesting. I follow a couple of atheists with active blogs and, apparently, even more active Twitter feeds. They do a lot of linking and retweeting, so naturally I ended up reading (most of) this article by John Gray.
Now, I had no idea who this John Gray was. The first thought that comes to mind when I hear the name John Gray is the director of The Glimmer Man and showrunner of The Ghost Whisperer. According to Wikipedia, this Gray is an English political philosopher who “sees volition, and hence morality, as an illusion, and portrays humanity as a ravenous species engaged in wiping out other forms of life.” Not exactly my kind of guy. He also claims, in this article, to be an atheist…and then goes on to try to dismantle what a lot of atheist activists (notably Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris) espouse: science leads to the truth, which means atheism. Gray writes:
For 21st century atheist missionaries, being liberal and scientific in outlook are one and the same.
It’s a reassuringly simple equation. In fact there are no reliable connections—whether in logic or history—between atheism, science and liberal values.
This, by the way, probably isn’t true. Best case scenario, Gray does an exceedingly poor job of arguing a point that may be true. He does what many religious apologists do: rather than defending his own flavor of atheism (which he waits to even mention until nearly the end), he attacks the things he believes “atheist missionaries” hold dear, mainly scientific inquiry, using the language of religion (“evangelical,” “missionaries”) to describe their thoughts and actions. Needless to say, it got under the skin of pretty much every atheist blogger out there.
I had a slightly different perspective. A few weeks ago, I was having an e-mail conversation with a friend who has grown exceptionally wary of seeing articles that cheekily say, “[insert factoid] is not true because SCIENCE!!” The last straw was an article on Jezebel about the FitBit entitled, “Your FitBit Is Bullshit, Says Science.” Because of how poorly constructed this brief article’s argument is, it led to a larger discussion (going back to another discussion we had months ago about anti-vaxxers) about how easy it is for laymen—and the majority of science and medical journalists are that—to misinterpret scientific data. They don’t have a clear grasp of how to read the research, or they rely on an abstract/summary, and the result is misinformation believed by many.
Worse that misinformation, though, is how easily actual scientists who actually know how to interpret data and actually read and write research findings for a living can manipulate their data. Bottom line: if you don’t like the result, you change the test. It’s certainly unethical, but it happens. A couple of important examples spring immediately to mind. Consider the tobacco industry, which has spent over 50 of years paying a platoon of lawyers to fight the inevitable. They don’t just hire lawyers; they also hire scientists, who perform tests designed to show cigarettes are not as dangerous as originally thought, or are getting safer, or whatever bullshit they’re hired to say. The reason some people, like Gray, think of science as its own religion is because, like religion, it’s not inherently objective. Results may not lie, but people do. And people are the ones designing the experiments producing the results that aren’t lies, and then writing research lying about how these not-lies make something that’s really, really bad into something that’s really, really good.
And so the more people rely on SCIENCE as the inherent savior of mankind, the more it starts to depend on what Reza Aslan claims religions depend on: “what you bring to it.” Religious texts are riddled with contradictions, which idiots like Aslan consider a virtue; pure, rational science may appear to have contradictions, but it typically means there’s a missing piece that has gone undiscovered. However, pure science is sullied by impure, agenda-driven science, which means contradictions emerge, nobody knows what to trust, and so they simply graft onto it whatever they want to believe. Now, even in this questionable, Rorschach inkblot form that’s more about faith in what you hope is true than belief in what you know is true, science has many advantages. For one thing, I’m not convinced anyone will come up with scientific research that says, “Taking virgins as your sex slaves is a great thing for society, because SCIENCE!” If they did, I’d be very concerned with the experiment they designed to test their hypothesis. But the fact remains that SCIENCE is not inherently objective, and it’s not inherently “liberal” or “humanist” or “secular.” I find myself agreeing with Gray, for different and less idiotic reasons, that science is not automatically the path away from religion.
Gray attempts to prove his case that science doesn’t have all the answers by bringing up a handful of legitimate examples of atrocious thinking provoked by a “science uber alles” mentality. First, he brings up eugenics—which, among other things, attempted to use science to prove racism and sexism were okay—which naturally leads to a mention of the Nazis, and then he dips back in time to tie it to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Gray doesn’t actually name Engels, but people familiar with Marx know that Engels, not Marx, is responsible for the “science” used to “prove” communists rule and capitalists drool.
Which is exactly the problem ignored by science advocates, and also ignored by Gray. The purview of science is not limited to objective, rational thinkers. If a scientist wants to “prove” something is “scientifically true,” they will find a way to do it—using the scientific method and often building upon legitimate research in order to sound more plausible. In the wrong hands, such science actually has been proven to be extremely dangerous. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think there’s anything better than the scientific method, but to think it can’t be abused and distorted, that it’s our purest and most indisputable form of knowledge, is absurd. Climate change, tobacco safety, vaccinations, the quality of FitBits… The question about issues like these isn’t about the veracity about hard, scientific data; if that were the case, then all the anti-vaxxers would have shut the hell up as soon as that initial story turned out to be bullshit. The question is, “What do you believe about this issue?”
As with religious faith, evidence, to far too many people, is secondary to the question of belief. But if scientific evidence is what you’re looking for—even if you just need to win an argument with one of those logical no-goodniks—you’ll find it, just as you’ll find mathematical and scientific proofs of God’s existence. The fact is, rational and objective thinkers tend to be (but aren’t always) agnostics or atheists, and rational and objective thinkers tend to view science with an open and inquisitive mind. It’s not merely about an answer; it’s about as many answers as possible, with as much detail as possible, under as much scrutiny as possible, to ensure that whoever came up with the data didn’t just pull it out of his or her ass.
In the same way this mode of thinking makes it difficult to understand people who buy into religious hokum, this mode makes it difficult to understand people who approach science dishonestly, unethically, and/or subjectively. This is an extreme limitation to the argument in support of atheism, because scientific findings can easily be a combination of all three. Advocating science as the solution to a problem religious people don’t believe exists doesn’t stand up to people who can never seem to figure out whether or not eggs are good or bad for you this week (that little satirical blurb, by the way, is a sterling encapsulation of the shitty game of Telephone being played between scientific researchers and laymen).
Yet, science is often used as a crutch. “Where’s the evidence of God’s existence?” atheist commentators bellow, hoping religious people will forget that what we know about the universe—although it’s significantly more now than it was even fifty years ago—would fill a thimble in the giant textile mill of complete knowledge. Here are some questions religious people would pose to atheist science advocates (if they were rational enough to think of anything other than, “B-b-b-but GOD!!”): what is dark matter? Since nobody actually knows, and nobody has ever seen it, and yet there is evidence that it exists and accounts for most of the matter in the universe—then how do you know it’s not God? How do you know this isn’t the evidence you sardonically claim to seek? How do you know this isn’t the rainbow bridge connecting cold, rational science and warm, fuzzy theology, if all you know is that it isn’t there without knowing what it is? Isn’t that what God is supposed to be? An unknowable presence that can’t be directly seen or touched, and yet is nevertheless there?
A reasonable person wouldn’t try to answer such a stupid series of questions by arguing it on scientific merits. No amount of astrophysical minutiae can skirt around the fact that dark matter is a known unknown. Until we know what all the known unknowns in the universe actually are—a day that will never come, because the universe is like the show Lost: one concrete answer, 50 new questions—the answer can never be, “God doesn’t exist because SCIENCE!” The answer, to a reasonable person, is that God doesn’t exist because God—all the gods, throughout history—is and always has been a made-up fairy tale. The fairy tale has grown more and more complex, and more and more pseudo-scientific, as millennia have passed, but that doesn’t make God anything more than a fictional character. The fact that Star Wars has an expanded universe going well beyond the movies, cluttered with so much detail and arcane trivia that it feels real to the people who love it, doesn’t make Han Solo real.
Citing a lack of scientific evidence as your evidence that God doesn’t exist is an unreasonable position. It’s the same trap as an anti-vaxxer who argues, “Maybe there’s no evidence that vaccines aren’t bad for you, but there’s also no evidence that they’re good for you.” And in terms of advocacy against religion, approaching it as the age-old argument of science versus faith won’t win any converts. It’s best to stick with provable facts: what religious texts say, what religious people do (or have done), external historical evidence that the development of religions is often much different than its official history.
That’s my view of it, anyway. I thought it was important to note here, because as I tackle the central question—did Hitler, Stalin, Mao, et al do atrocious things in the name of atheism?—I want to keep it clear that I agree with Gray that the relationship between atheism, science, and liberalism is tenuous at best. Rational thought may tie the three together for some, but not for all. Certainly not for the ménage à trois of totalitarian tough guys mentioned above.
Let’s talk, now, about political ideology. What is the most prominent common feature of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party and the Communist Party? State control. One way these parties slid into power, with a certain amount of popular support, was that many people supported a basic political framework where the state controlled the means of production. Individual capitalists could not be trusted to do that, because they always seemed to get richer while the poor always seemed to get poorer. Once production is centralized, then the wealth of the rich men could be distributed equally (or based upon the needs) of all people. Yay!
But how can a government ensure everyone gets their fair share? The only solution is to regulate personal freedom. How much property can you own? None; it’s provided for you. How much food can you buy? None; it’s rationed for you. How much can your farm yield? As much as the central planners say it can. Add to that a tinge of paranoia—people, left to their own devices, are inherently evil, so they must be controlled—and you have a recipe for the slow dismantling of anything resembling liberty.
People, in the interest of fairness, might go along with some of this—at first. But fairness is a subjective concept. “I’m okay with the state taking over all the businesses, but why can’t they put me in charge of running the shop I used to own?” Resentments grow, questions brim to the surface, and the whiff of yet another revolution perfurmes the air. How can the people in power prevent that from happening?
Nationalism. For those of you who watch Fox News, all that stuff they call “patriotism”? The ideas that you can never see a critical word about your government, that you must always support the troops, that America is not only the best country in the world but also has no flaws, that anyone (citizen or not) who doesn’t endorse the American system uncritically is a traitor who needs to be dealt with as a terrorist war criminal, that we must declare as many wars as we can win in order to protect our freedom? All that stuff is nationalism. As far as I’m concerned, it is the most toxic form of ideology in human history. Examples abound of ferocious wars with devastating consequences, based solely on an idea of national identity (and, obviously, national superiority).
Nationalism became a tool for both Nazis and communists to whip their people into a fervor. They may not have done so consciously (but probably did), yet it had a conscious effect: pushing the state into first position in their minds and lives meant everything else—especially the concept of individuality and thus, individual freedom—was secondary. This may have been easier to accomplish in former feudal regimes like Germany, Russia, and China. Personal freedom was a relatively new concept, and one that didn’t seem to be working in the favor of the many. Those who wanted true freedom had already left for America, so who was left to fight for it?
Rather than being shown the value of freedom—the idea that a “serf” could become a “lord,” and that a “lord” wasn’t required by law or cultural custom to treat his workers as serfs—they were shown the more comfortable image of modern feudalism. They put a gloss of liberty—“the people” were “in charge” of “electing” “representatives”—on an age-old structure of central planning and forceful, autocratic rule. To make it even more digestible, they added the concepts of national identity and superiority. In order to force people aware of modern ideas into a primitive society, they had to convince “the people” that they were important, valued cogs in a larger machine. Their individual identity came only through their importance to the nation as a whole. Everyone was valued, everyone was important—but only inasmuch as they gave to the state. Germany, Russia, and China could only rise again to match, or even eclipse, their former imperial greatness if the natives believed in that single, unifying cause: to make their crumbling homeland great again, to spread their superior values and culture to the rest of the world, to rid the current state of undesirables who would prevent everyone else from achieving that beautiful, communal goal of strength and supremacy.
Ideologically, nationalism was the driving force that led to both the successes and failures of these regimes. Nationalism is a poison that destroys the individual in favor of mindless groupthink. It is the hammer and sickle through which freedom is systematically pounded and uprooted out of existence, in favor of the fantasy of a flawless Utopia based upon the homeland that you love. It’s not wrong to love your country; it’s wrong of people to exploit that love, it’s wrong of the individual to allow the exploitation of that love, it’s wrong for that love to be blind enough to not recognize reality when it stares you in the face.
What about the church? Aye, there’s the rub.
Why were communist regimes—and their leaders—atheistic? Why did Hitler and his cronies say so many vicious things about the church while exploiting it to foment the nationalistic fervor they desired? Because the church, for most people, is incompatible with national identity. If a person views himself as a Christian first and a Russian second, that becomes a problem. Marx, when he called religion “the opium of the people,” meant that it produced an “illusory happiness.” He believed religion would not be necessary in his communist Utopia, because the system would produce true happiness. Marx was short-sighted; Lenin and his followers were, too, but they were also pragmatic. They saw that their system did not produce happiness, so they had to eliminate the alternative, “illusory” happiness; it wasn’t safe to allow people to wonder why they were unhappy and search for something more meaningful than the state.
It was taught, instead, that religion made its followers submissive and primed them for the exploitation of their greedy, capitalist masters. This isn’t exactly wrong, but it’s also a tad ironic given the structure of the communist system. But that’s because the communist masters knew better: they demanded submission to the state, not to a supernatural being. This led, quite neatly, to persecution and scapegoating. Persecution and scapegoating then led to imprisonment and massacring. Hitler was by far the most overt about this nationalistic, submit-to-the-state agenda; the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent China, did a better job of clouding what they were up to in euphemisms and Marxist rhetoric. But statism is statism, and regardless of the specifics of the regime, it means one thing: subservience to the state. That can be accomplished in only one way: by successfully brainwashing citizens through nationalistic fervor.
In short: atheism was never a central tenet of Nazi Germany (which was not an atheist state, led by someone it’s not clear was an atheist), the Soviet Union, or the People’s Republic of China. Once the bedrock of nationalism was laid, atheism was poured on top slowly and carefully. The subsequent persecution and extermination of religious people was never a product of atheism, or atheist values. The problem with the religious was not their belief in God, but their belief in God over the state. Their unwillingness to reject their faith led to their persecution. A desperate desire to blame someone for the obvious imperfections of the regime led to their scapegoating, torment, and extermination. It was never an argument of belief in God versus disbelief in God; it was about belief in the state versus disbelief in it.
How can I be so sure of this? Nazi Germany is the obvious key to this entire argument. After all, Hitler never outlawed religion; in fact, he intentionally exploited the power of the church to spread his nationalist message. Worse than that, he pandered to one of the biggest clichés of religion: that the Jews are to be blamed for everything that ever goes wrong anywhere, at any time. This was swallowed by Christian audiences fairly easily, partly as a result of centuries of institutionalized bigotry, partly as a result of anti-Semitism being built into the New Testament (roughly 60% of which is an argument for where the Jews and the Old Testament erred, with Jesus serving up a corrective and being persecuted and indirectly killed by the Jews because of it).
It doesn’t matter that Hitler, personally, may have been an atheist, or that his alleged long-term plan may have been to eliminate the church as the Soviet Union did, and to exterminate those Christians who refused to flee or renounce their faith; during the time that Hitler reigned, the church remained, and his mostly Christian followers seemed pretty okay with the extermination of the Jews. That begs the question: why would Christians willingly tolerate—if not support and execute on his belief—Hitler’s heinous, disgusting policies? Why, if they had wondrous and magical religious faith binding them to the firm, clear morality that atheism lacks, would good Christian Germans support the Nazis’ open anti-Semitism, open persecution of Jews and other undesirables, “scientific” insistence in the superiority of the German race, belief in the entitlement to the land and infrastructure of their neighboring countries (along with their subjugation or extermination)?
Why? How could such moral people let this happen?
The answer is clear, and it’s not atheism.