By R.N. Carmona
Since it is a frequent go-to argument favored by some Christians, I’ve endeavored to repurpose a response to an interlocutor. I have, in other words, turned a response into a standalone post that addresses what Michael Sherlock has dubbed The Atheist Atrocities Fallacy. To be clear, this attempted argument isn’t a fallacy, but rather a slew of fallacies, most prominent of which is tu quoque. As Sherlock states:
The atheist atrocities fallacy is a multifaceted and multidimensional monster, comprised of a cocktail of illogically contrived arguments. It is, at its core, a tu quoque fallacy, employed to deflect justified charges of religious violence, by erroneously charging atheism with similar, if not worse, conduct. But it is much more than this, for within its tangled and mangled edifice can be found the false analogy fallacy, the poisoning of the well fallacy, the false cause fallacy, and even an implied slippery slope fallacy.1
It is a common retort used when someone reminds Christians of the brutality committed in the name of their god. Christians employing this fallacious argument offer a number of examples. I will be discussing the usual suspects: Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, and Joseph Stalin.
The first despot we’ll consider is Pol Pot. One may see this as splitting hairs, but Pol Pot was a Buddhist. Buddhism is often conflated with atheism because it’s a godless religion. Buddhism, however, differs from what I call normative atheism in a few respects.2 Kai Nielsen writes:
Buddhism, which has neither God nor worship, has a belief in what Buddhists take to be spiritual realities and this is incompatible with naturalism as is theism as well, which, at least as usually understood, is a form of supernaturalism. Naturalism, where consistent, is an atheism.3
Given this, it is simply dishonest to conflate Buddhism with atheism. We don’t believe in reincarnation, transcendent ancestors, and whatever else a Buddhist may believe in. Let us turn back to Pol Pot.
Michael Sherlock had the following to say about Pol Pot:
This [Pol Pot’s regime’s] line of thinking about revolutionary consciousness directly parallels Buddhist thought, with the “Party line” and “collective stand” being substituted for dhamma…One could certainly push this argument further , contending that the Khmer Rouge attempted to assume the monk’s traditional role as moral instructor (teaching their new brand of “mindfulness”) and that DK regime’s glorification of asceticism, detachment, the elimination of attachment and desire, renunciation (of material goods and personal behaviors, sentiments, and attitudes), and purity paralleled prominent Buddhist themes…
I have only presented a small snippet of the available evidence that points to religion’s role in Pol Pot’s crimes, and there is not one single piece of solid evidence that Pol Pot was an atheist, so let us once and for all dispense with that speculative piece of religious propaganda. Pol Pot spent close to a decade at Catholic school and nearly as long studying at a Buddhist institution, so religious education was something he had in common with both Hitler and Stalin, but I would never use such data-mined facts to assert that religious education invariably inspires tyrants to commit atrocities, although a case for such a proposition could probably be made without committing too many logical and historical inaccuracies. I won’t even bother sharing the un-sourced quote from Prince Norodom Sihanouk that Christians present as “proof” that Pol Pot was an atheist, as its origin is not only dubious, but its contents reflect a belief in heaven, which, if genuine, negates any claim that Pol Pot was an atheist.4
Given this, I reiterate, it is irresponsible to conflate Buddhism and atheism. Pol Pot certainly didn’t believe in a god, but he was by no means a normative atheist. Atheists, like myself, do not believe in reincarnation, transcendent ancestors, and whatever else a Buddhist may believe. What Pol Pot did is, in fact, quite similar to what Stalin did. At any rate, Pol Pot wasn’t some atheist who killed in the name of no god. Therefore, citing him as an instance of a radical atheist is moot.
I turn now to Stalin. This is definitely entering murkier waters. We’ll see, however, that Stalin also wasn’t an atheist who killed in the name of no god. He certainly was an atheist, but his motives were demonstrably ideological and political. Sherlock also quotes Hitchens, but I can quote him directly and more extensively given that I read his book, God is Not Great. Hitchens states:
For Joseph Stalin, who had trained to be a priest in a seminary in Georgia, the whole thing was ultimately a question of power. “How many divisions,” he famously and stupidly inquired, “has the pope?” (The true answer to his boorish sarcasm was, “More than you think.”) Stalin then pedantically repeated the papal routine of making science conform to dogma, by insisting that the shaman and charlatan Trofim Lysenko had disclosed the key to genetics and promised extra harvests of specially inspired vegetables. (Millions of innocents died of gnawing internal pain as a consequence of this “revelation.”) This Caesar unto whom all things were dutifully rendered took care, as his regime became a more nationalist and statist one, to maintain at least a puppet church that could attach its traditional appeal to his.5
Indeed it was a question of power. Stalin was a man so paranoid of losing his influence and power that he sent an agent to murder Leon Trotsky because Stalin thought Trotsky was exerting his influence on Soviets from all the way in Mexico!
This was, in fact, the same reason he was banished from the USSR in the first place:
In 1924, Lenin died, and Joseph Stalin emerged as leader of the USSR. Against Stalin’s stated policies, Trotsky called for a continuing world revolution that would inevitably result in the dismantling of the Soviet state. He also criticized the new regime for suppressing democracy in the Communist Party and for failing to develop adequate economic planning. In response, Stalin and his supporters launched a propaganda counterattack against Trotsky. In 1925, he was removed from his post in the war commissariat. One year later, he was expelled from the Politburo and in 1927 from the Communist Party. In January 1928, Trotsky began his internal exile in Alma-Ata and the next January was expelled from the Soviet Union outright.8
Going back to the Hitchens quote, there are a couple of things that are quite curious. First, that a shaman had disclosed the key to genetics is quite curious. Shamanism is mystical and supernaturalist or at the very least, paranormalist. Normative atheists wouldn’t agree with forms of shamanism. Furthermore, this “making science conform with dogma” business is undoubtedly appalling to most atheists–even if they aren’t in any way scientistic. Like I said, murkier waters. For anyone employing this fallacious argument, there’s a fact about Stalin’s regime that they would like to be nothing more than a historical footnote. Unfortunately for them, the fact that Christians were among Stalin’s faithful supporters is a glaring issue. Hitchens continues by quoting Czeslaw Milosz:
I have known many Christians—Poles, Frenchmen, Spaniards— who were strict Stalinists in the field of politics but who retained certain inner reservations, believing God would make corrections once the bloody sentences of the all-mighties of History were carried out. They pushed their reasoning rather far. They argue that history develops according to immutable laws that exist by the will of God; one of these laws is the class struggle; the twentieth century marks the victory of the proletariat, which is led in its struggle by the Communist Party; Stalin, the leader of the Communist Party, fulfils the law of history, or in other words acts by: the will of God, therefore one must obey him. Mankind can be renewed only on the Russian pattern; that is why no Christian can oppose the one—cruel, it is true—idea which will create a new kind of man over the entire planet. Such reasoning is often used by clerics who are Party tools. “Christ is a new man. The new man is the Soviet man. Therefore Christ is a Soviet man!” said Justinian Marina, the Rumanian patriarch.9
In brief then, Christians were enablers. Rather than stopping this bloodthirsty “atheist”, they sided with him and asserted that he was performing god’s will. I’ll give my readers the same advice Sherlock gave: read Chapter 17 of Hitchens’ book God Is Not Great. Here’s a PDF copy.
With Pol Pot and Stalin now moot points, we turn now to Mao Zedong. Mao Zedong is a favorite among Christians and Christian sympathizers because he was brutally cruel to Christians:
Christians in China have long suffered persecution. Under Mao Zedong, freedom of belief was enshrined in the new Communist constitution (largely to accommodate Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists in the west of the country). Yet perhaps as many as half a million Christians were harried to death, and tens of thousands more were sent to labour camps.10
He was such an atheist that he accommodated some religions and oppressed, in particular, Christians. It’s useful to note here that Mao was a Buddhist during his younger years. In fact, he followed after his mother:
Mao would talk about his mother with emotion all his life. It was in her footsteps that he became a Buddhist as a child. Years later he told his staff: “I worshipped my mother … Wherever my mother went, I would follow … going to temple fairs, burning incense and paper money, doing obeisance to Buddha … Because my mother believed in Buddha, so did I.” But he gave up Buddhism in his mid-teens.11
His entire regime was an imitation of the Buddhism he once knew. His Little Red Book is a great place to start. Alexander Cook states:
Associating Mao’s book with the religiously venerated canons of classics, Charles Fitzgerald noted that Mao Zedong Thought has “become to his own people in his own age what the sayings of Confucius were to the Chinese people for the past two thousand years: a source of inspiration and guidance in matters social, political, and moral.” The format of quotation, yulu, not only echoes the terse and fragmented maxims of Buddhist sayings and Daoist epigrams, but most significantly the lunyu, the Analects of Confucius. In this lineage Mao became a modern sage-king by virtue of a reactivation of China’s long-entrenched text-based heritage. The widespread and constantly enacted rituals of reading, studying, and discussion of Mao’s quotations and writings, the telling of success stories in applying Mao’s teachings to all occasions and looking for answers to all problems, the passionate intensity with which the readers adhere and defend Mao’s words–all this warrants religious terms in the characterization of Mao’s Little Red Book.12
Now, would a normative atheist like myself write such a book? No. The book has clearly religious influence. Of the book, Cook also stated:
[T]he little red book is not just a text. It is an object that moves around and has a life of its own. Often, people are not really reading it. Often reading the thing is not important. Often it’s waving it at somebody or having it in your pocket, the symbolism of the thing that allows it to be used in many different ways.
I don’t know what it is about the text, if it is the little size or the red color or the words that are inside it. But the text seems to have had a sort of talismanic property such that someone who is holding the text feels empowered to violence.13
I’ll have more to say about his followers shortly, but you can already see how this is veering far and wide from the atheism proponents of this argument are looking to attack. This isn’t atheism at all. This is ideological and political fervor similar to what we saw with Stalin. Cook then adds that the Little Red Book can be viewed as an authoritative quasi-religious text. He compares it specifically to the Bible and the Qur’an.14 Lastly, it has to be noted that, like in Stalin’s case, religious people ran to Mao’s defense. Not surprisingly, they weren’t the Christians whom he oppressed, but rather, the Buddhists he showed favor to.
“The Tibetan people regard Chairman Mao as their sun, their star and as a living Buddha,” exclaimed the Panchen Lama a few months after the bloody suppression of the Lhasa uprising. Mao’s application of the laws of Marxism-Leninism “is in harmony with the laws of the heavens,” wrote a Chinese magazine.15
With that, I rest my case with regards to Mao. Pol Pot, Stalin, and Mao have now been rendered moot. I would hope that some Christians are not like some idiot apologist who asks us to forget the people who have died because of Christian dogmatism and focus instead on the blood on these atheists’ hands. Perhaps they’re, instead, arguing that there’s no connection between religion and atrocities. If that’s the message they’re trying to convey, this is certainly the wrong route to take.
It’s the wrong route to take because in employing this argument, they commit a slew of fallacies jumbled into one. To reiterate, there’s poisoning the well. It also contains, at its core, tu quoque: “we committed atrocities, but so have atheists.” Even if that were the case, two wrongs don’t make a right. It also relies on a false analogy and leads to a slippery slope.
In any event, if like an idiot apologist, they’re looking to disprove atheism by pointing to atrocities, they miss the mark. Christianity and Islam aren’t false because of the atrocities their adherents committed. The atrocities committed by Christians and Muslims are certainly a problem, but it doesn’t follow that these religions are false because adherents of these religions murdered countless people–including their own. This is essentially a non sequitur. Therefore, even if an atheist walks into a church and guns down some congregants, this isn’t a necessary consequence of atheism. It certainly wouldn’t follow that atheism is then rendered false. This is precisely why I stay away from pointing to Christian and Muslim atrocities. Christians like to make use of the words radical or militant, but they don’t realize their misapprehension of such terms. Charlie Hebdo-esque mockery and Dawkins-like tweets and Facebook updates aren’t anything like suicide bombing, acid bathing, and pipe bombing abortion clinics. If our radicals are strident authors and bloggers, then I’m happy with where we stand.
Lastly, even if I were to shred everything I just wrote above and grant that these men were atheists, it matters that modern atheists are not committing atrocities on that scale. Furthermore, atheists aren’t even committing atrocities on a smaller scale. For all that’s said of the moral depravity that would follow from rejection of usually the Judeo-Christian god, secular societies fare better than religious ones.
As University of London professor Stephen Law has observed, “if declining levels of religiosity were the main cause of…social ills, we should expect those countries that are now the least religious to have the greatest problems. The reverse is true.”
Consider some specific examples.
The Save the Children Foundation publishes an annual “Mother’s Index,” wherein they rank the best and worst places on earth in which to be a mother. And the best are almost always among the most secular nations on earth, while the worst are among the most devout. The non-profit organization called Vision of Humanity publishes an annual “Global Peace Index.” And according to their rankings, the most peaceful nations on earth are almost all among the most secular, while the least peaceful are almost all among the most religious. According to the United Nations 2011 Global Study on Homicide, of the top-10 nations with the highest intentional homicide rates, all are very religious/theistic nations, but of those at bottom of the list – the nations on earth with the lowest homicide rates – nearly all are very secular nations.16
It’s simple to pretend that there’s no connection between the fundamentals of this or that religion and the behavior of extremists, and refrain from blaming a religion when said religious person kills for their beliefs. If, however, a religion’s fundamentalists are problematic, perhaps the actual problem is its fundamentals. Christians, for the most part, aren’t killing people for their beliefs anymore. They are, however, hurting people and infringing on their rights. Never mind that they hurt their own children: death by exorcism and faith healing. There’s also forced indoctrination and shoving their non-believing children into a closet (see here). The law in the US has some of these people straight. Just look over at more theocratic countries and what you’ll find are radicals who are murdering for their religion. Move over to hyper-religious countries like the Philippines and you’ll find self-depracating radicalism, e.g. flagellation. There should be no reason why kids in the Philippines whip themselves over the back and nail themselves to a cross!
The Atheist Atrocities Fallacy is a failed argument that commits a number of fallacies. Rather than employing this argument, Christians should be concerned with the behavior of some of their peers. As a humanist, I would be very concerned if there were a group of extremist atheists torturing and murdering religious people. I would stand against them. Though it is difficult to endure the rhetoric of so called “new atheists” who seem to want nothing more than to remind you of the horrors committed by people who believed as you do, tu quoque isn’t the best route to take. There’s also the fact that said atheists (usually) have a good reason for brining that up. As mentioned, atrocities are still being committed by religious people. Though it isn’t on the scale of past atrocities, the fact that children are dying due to outmoded beliefs should concern modern Christians. Also, atheists who mention the Inquisition, for instance, are simply frustrated with your continued advertisement of the good your religion does. Setting aside the fact that there’s usually an ulterior motive underlying these purported acts of kindness, Dennett expresses this frustration best: “You don’t get to advertise all the good that your religion does without first scrupulously subtracting all the harm it does and considering seriously the question of whether some other religion, or no religion at all, does better.”
1 Sherlock, Michael. “The Atheist Atrocities Fallacy–Hitler, Stalin, & Pol Pot”. WordPress. 21 Oct 2014. Web. 18 Jan 2015.
3 Nielsen, Kai. Naturalism and Religion. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2001. 30. Print.
4 Ibid. 
5 Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve, 2007. 84. Print.
6 “Aug 20, 1940: Trotsky assassinated in Mexico”. History. 2014. Web. 18 Jan 2015.
7 Lanchin, Mike. “Trotsky’s grandson recalls ice pick killing”. BBC. 27 Aug 2012. Web. 18 Jan 2015.
8 “Jan 11, 1928: Stalin banishes Trotsky”. History. 2014. Web. 18 Jan 2015.
9 Ibid. 
10 “Cracks in the atheist edifice”. The Economist. 1 Nov 2014. Web. 18 Jan 2015.
11 Chang, Jung and Halliday, Jon. “First Chapter: ‘Mao’”. New York Times. 23 Oct 2005. Web. 18 Jan 2015.
12 Cook, Alexander C. Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History. New York, NY: Cambridge UP, 2014. 267. Print.
13 Stevenson, Jim. “Q&A with Alexander Cook: The Powers of Mao’s Little Red Book”. Voice of America. 6 May 2014. Web. 18 Jan 2015.
14 Ibid. 
15 Ullman, Bernard. “The Long Shadow of Mao Zedong”. New York Times. 16 April 1961. Web. 18 Jan 2015.
16 Zuckerman, Phil. “Secular Societies Fare Better Than Religious Societies”. Psychology Today. 13 Oct 2014. Web. 18 Jan 2014.