Of Tu Quoque and Atheism as a Motivation for Mass Murder

The church has a long tradition of killing free-thinkers specifically for religious reasons. Pointing the finger at others will not erase this fact. But let's consider the claim that atheists "did it too." Let's consider the popular example, Stalin. Is the religious apologist's tu quoque that atheist Stalin was motivated to kill by his atheism valid? Was Stalin driven by atheism to kill not just Christians but to conduct the wholesale slaughter of human beings generally?

Stalin was a mass murderer who killed for political reasons. Stalin killed millions of people for Stalin. The people he killed included both Christians and atheists. It is clear that he killed Christians at least in the beginning as part of the party agenda. Atheism was a tenet of Marxist ideology, but it would be hard to imagine how Stalin would have been driven to kill by atheism alone. The salient question is how can one be driven by atheism, a lack of belief? Was Stalin motivated by atheism or was he motivated by Marxist ideology in addition to a desire to destroy all authority that was not himself?

Lack of belief cannot motivate one to do anything. The lack of something cannot logically do anything. But ideologies can. If you make atheism a tenet of an ideology like Marxism, then the ideology can in certain circumstances drive people to seek the destruction of religion, though it does not follow that this is necessarily always the case or that such an ideology would motivate the indiscriminate slaughter of human beings generally. It is well-established, however, that putting power in the hands of paranoid sociopaths like Stalin, Caligula or Nero invariably does lead to problems.

At most we can say that Stalin was motivated to kill by his desire for power, Marxism, and his own psychopathy. Though there is some doubt as to whether Stalin even cared about Marxism. It may simply be that he saw an opportunity and seized it, taking advantage of the revolution to maneuver himself into a position of power. It seems Lenin began to have doubts about Stalin's motives towards the end of his life. Lenin's testament concluded with a recommendation that Stalin be removed from his position as secretary-general of the party.

On a side note, populations have grown exponentially over the past two centuries. There were more people in the 20th century than had existed in the previous two millennia, and there existed for the first time technology to make extermination of human beings possible on a scale never before imagined. If there had been a 20th-century-sized population in medieval Europe, and if the church had had access to 20th century weapons of mass destruction, how many heretics, pagans, and atheists might the church have killed?

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Comment by Dustin Roy on February 1, 2014 at 3:35am

I don't know too much about those leaders but just because somebody is an atheist does not mean they do not believe in some kind of religion. Atheism is just the lack of belief in God(s). There is such thing as nontheistic religions. Alternatively, someone who follows the moral teachings of Jesus but rejects the belief in God is called a "Christian atheist". This is why I do not like the term "atheist" to describe people who do not believe in any religion like myself because they have more than just the lack of belief in Gods. A more proper term to describe such people is an antireligionist or irreligionist.

Comment by Pat on January 29, 2014 at 8:45am

I think Loren and Dennis have touched upon a theme common to both religious leaders and individuals like Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Tse-tung. The need for power and control over the populace. True, Hitler was a Christian - sort of. But he intermingled the millennium old Christian anti-semitic bigotry with ideas of racial purity and ancient Germanic tribal myths and legends. And, he overlaid all of that with his cult of personality. Stalin was a declared atheist, having previously studied for the priesthood.  But, contemporaneous with Hitler, and later Mao, they all developed a cult of worship towards them.  And, in my humble opinion, the one thing they, prior Popes, and current religious leaders all have in common is getting power over the masses based upon the blind and guile laden worship of something; albeit a living leader or invisible friend. Emphasis on the blind worship part. Mix in some phony doctrine that appeals to the masses (eternal life or an earthly utopia for the downtrodden), trot out a list of supposed enemies to denounce, throw in some militaristic and ritualistic incantations and talismans (the crucifix on a Crusader's shield, the swastika, or Mao's red book), and you have all the makings of a getting the populace in line.  One other thing that is common to all of them. The suppression of free ideas and critical thinking. Orwell had it right when he wrote about the Ministry of Truth in 1984. Christian damnation of banned books, fascist book burning festivals, and Soviet suppression of western literature and ideas as "decadent and counter-revolutionary."

HItchens had it right when he said he could not name one society that fell into this dictatorial trap, be it religious or secular, that allowed the open exchange and free flow of ideas. 

Comment by Loren Miller on January 29, 2014 at 7:12am

The atheist argument has been used with Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, in each case failing to recognize that the driving force behind each was far less atheism than it was POWER, the pursuit, aggregation and maintenance thereof.

While my understanding of this is more anecdotal than substantial, I've heard that Stalin had a considerable rival in the Russian Orthodox Church, which is one reason why he may have leaned on atheism as a counter to them ... except that I have ALSO heard that he collaborated with the ROC when it suited his purposes.  Again, I'm an engineer, not a historian.  You may want to follow up on this on your own.

Still ... politics always did make for strange bedfellows!

Comment by Michael Penn on January 29, 2014 at 7:00am

If the religious cannot discredit legitimately they always brand a person as "atheist" to explain their brutality. This has been done with Hitler, a Catholic, and it's been done with Stalin as well. Stalin went to a religious school, and it has been said that he studied for the preisthood before he dropped out. Many reasons have been given for his departure, but lack of money is a likely one. Stalin was good at propaganda and fell in with the Marxists and was very close to Lenin. He started a "cult of personality" about others and even himself. This built him into a Russian superman as he assumed more and more power.

Stalin was a psychopath who had a need for power. Most likely this came out of all the trama of his early life. For christians to claim that he killed because he was atheist is totally absurd!

"Hey, Charley. I want to kill you but I can't do it coz I'm a christian now."

"I really want to rape all these women but god won't let me do it."

That is totally pathetic thinking.

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