The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Godwin’s Law vs. the God Delusion

Saw this over at Kip’s and couldn’t resist chiming in.

The inevitable, even clichéd, response on the part of theists to this litany of woes is to ask: what about Hitler and Stalin? Yes, the question resorts to the hackneyed rhetorical ploy of et tu quoque (Latin for “So’s your old man”). But at least the question’s inevitability forces the atheist to show his hand. Thus Dawkins lamely avers that Hitler did believe in God (of sorts) and, hey, Stalin attended an Orthodox seminary in his youth! If that retort seems a tad desperate, England’s most pious unbeliever concludes with this wan distinction: “Stalin was an atheist and Hitler probably wasn’t, but even if he was, the bottom line of the Stalin/Hitler debating point is very simple. Individual atheists may do evil things but they don’t do evil things in the name of atheism.” So it’s not atheism that’s the problem, only atheists!

Once and for all, can we put this in the same category of ridiculousness as Kirk Cameron calling the banana an “atheist’s nightmare,” or that the human eye could not possibly have evolved?

Here again we approach something akin to the mental blockage otherwise known as irreducible complexity, which—when boiled down to gravy—isn’t all that complex. It’s tempting here to apply one of the common corollaries to Godwin’s law: that, in any debate or discourse, whoever mentions the Nazis or Hitler first “loses” the argument.

But that seems almost too easy. Especially when it’s even easier to debunk this with just a little thought.

It doesn’t matter whether Hitler or Stalin were atheists, because their being atheists had little to do with what earned them their infamous places in history. You see, while an atheist doesn’t believe in a god or god, an atheist can believe any number of other things. (Some may, for example, practice a non-theistic brand of Buddhism.) And some of those beliefs, while not theistic, may not be reality-based or supported by so much as a mustard seed of evidence.

Kind of like… Well, to be honest, Sam Harris put it much better than I can.

Atheism is responsible for the greatest crimes in human history.

People of faith often claim that the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were the inevitable product of unbelief. The problem with fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions. Such regimes are dogmatic to the core and generally give rise to personality cults that are indistinguishable from cults of religious hero worship. Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields were not examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma; they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run amok. There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.

And again, in “The Myth of Secular Moral Chaos.”

People of faith regularly allege that atheism is responsible for some of the most appalling crimes of the twentieth century. Are atheists really less moral than believers? While it is true that the regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were irreligious to varying degrees, they were not especially rational. In fact, their public pronouncements were little more than litanies of delusion—delusions about race, economics, national identity, the march of history, or the moral dangers of intellectualism. In many respects, religion was directly culpable even here. Consider the Holocaust: the anti-Semitism that built the Nazi crematoria brick by brick was a direct inheritance from medieval Christianity. For centuries, Christian Europeans had viewed the Jews as the worst species of heretics and attributed every societal ill to their continued presence among the faithful.

But to get to that point, you have to be willing to continue thinking beyond the “Well, Hitler and Stalin were atheists, so there you have it,” argument. You have to continue thinking to consider that Hitler was also a Nazi and Stalin was also a Communist, and that both were the “supreme leaders” of their respective political movements. (Supreme beings, if you will, within their spheres of influence.) You have to continue thinking, to get to the point of considering how much movements like Communism or Nazism encourage critical thinking and questioning authority, compared to how much they relied on unquestioning acceptance of their tenets and unquestioning obedience to authority.

Well, you have to continue thinking, period.

When you have to believe something in order to get into heaven, and you will spend all of in hell if you don’t believe it or if you believe anything else, at some point you stop asking questions. You have to, if you don’t want to go to hell.

It is as though you are standing in a room, and at the other end of that room is the gate to hell. You arm is outstretched, and in your hand is the key to that gate. Every question asked and answered by scientific inquiry is a step that takes you closer to that gate. Ask one question, and you take a step closer. Answer another one and you take another step. Keep asking and you’re walking across the room. Before you know it, the key is in the lock, and one more question may turn the key.

But not only must you stop asking questions, but you must stop others from asking questions if you believe in a “designer” that punishes entire cities and entire nations for tolerating disbelief. Because every step they take, every inquiry, every question asked takes them towards that gate that must stay locked, not just to keep out what’s on the other side, but because if the gate is ever opened, only one thing can be worse than what it unleashes, and that’s if it unleashes nothing at all.

At least if the very foundations of your reality depends on that gate staying closed and what you say is on the other side of it staying what you say it is and where you say it is.

You have to stop asking questions, which means you have to stop thinking, even if that means you end up ignoring broad swaths of history, not knowing whether the earth is round, and—ironically enough, considering the comparisons above—becoming an apologist for the Inquisition.


  1. The argument that “Atheism is responsible for the greatest crimes in human history” is a bit odd to me — I always held the opposite belief in that most conflicts resulting in war and other great atrocities in human history has their basis in religion or some sort of religious belief.

    The idea of atheism is not a lack of moral core or any system of belief, but that the system of religious faith is replaced by a system of logic and rationality that cannot justify a the existence of theistic entity.

    The religious fear of atheism is the supposed chaos that might result from the lack of an absolute authoritative entity that specifies one should not or cannot do something. However, even more powerful in my opinion is the thinking that one has the (absolute) right to do something based on a specific religious belief. While one might commit some great atrocity because nobody said not to, one only need to foresee the consequences to prevent such a atrocity from being committed.

    On the other hand, isn’t it even more dangerous for a person to commit some great atrocity because the person believed that he/she had the absolute moral authority to? So in spite of foreseeing the consequences, the person is no less deterred because of his religious belief in his judgments and actions.

    Applying these arguments to Hitler and Stalin, it is not the lack of religious belief that led them to committing those atrocities. Isn’t it the case, that they believed that they have the right (based on some religious or some sort of irrational belief) to commit those atrocities, regardless of any foreseeable consequences?

  2. One of my favorite bumper stickers says Fundamentalism Stops a Thinking Mind. That pretty much sums it up–fundamentalists just don’t think. They’re spoon fed the dogma and beyond that they don’t learn anything–in fact learning is discouraged if not forbidden either directly or indirectly.

    And the Hitler/Stalin/Pol Pot meme is pervasive with believers who want to take some of the heat off themselves. The fact that none of the crimes those individuals committed were done in the name of atheism doesn’t enter the minds of those making the arguments because they don’t care. Atheists are inherently evil because they don’t believe in God, so of course atheists who do evil things are by far the worst people on the planet. If you try to confront them with the facts you must brace yourself for a very, very long argument.

  3. Not to quibble too much, but Hitler was Catholic. So were all but one of the Fascist leaders of the mid 20th century, by the way: Mussolini, Franco, Salazar, Petain, Laval, and several lesser lights. To my knowledge only Vidkun Quisling in Norway was not. This goes a long way towards explaining why when Pope Benedict read his encyclical condemning the evils of the 20th century he named atheism as the greatest cause of human suffering, citing Stalin and Communism, but ignored the Nazis and the Holocaust completely. I suppose the fact that as a youth, he had been a member of the Hitler Youth himself may have helped too.

    Otherwise, I am right with you!

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