Just as physicists seek to unite Quantum Theory and Relativity, for the New Atheists the Holy Grail of historicism is to find some way of proving that while Christianity was fully responsible for every inquisition, act of imperialism, racial slur, and poorly-cooked Big Mac in western history, atheism was wholly innocent of the hundred millions of kulaks, workers, priests, and assorted perpetrators of Bad Think and class error who were murdered from about 1917 to about 1989 under the aegis of dialectical materialism. The Search for this Unholy Grail is a common thread in the mythologies of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Victor Stenger, and reaches something of a fever pitch in the writings of Hector Avalos -- along with other Gnus too numerous to mention, especially since I'm at the other end of the world right now and can't leaf through my office library.
Stenger chooses as his dialogue partner on this subject one Vox Day, an interesting and entertaining writer, but not a scholar of communism, as have been some other critics of atheism on this score, like David Aikman, Alister McGrath, or myself. (Stenger cites me extensively on other topics, so he could have challenged me here if he had wanted to.) Not to worry: this is not a football game, the line between players and fans is loose, and some unpublished Gnus HAVE gone after me on this subject.
Including, today, one PJ Shelton, a sometime-traveler in China.
Shelton wrote an accerbic critique of Vox Day's book, The Irrational Atheist, magnanimously entitled, "Headline News: The World's Dumbest Christian Discovered." Among other things, like blaming everyone but Iran for Iran's international isolation, Shelton made the following remarkable set of comments:
"Here's another laughable error from "TIA," from a man who claims to be a libertarian: '[The] communisms of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Mengistu, and Kim Il-Sung all differed in the details. While each of the six dictators identified themselves as communists, the only belief these mass murderers held completely in common was an atheism more militant than that of Harris himself."
"No, all those commie mass murderers had at least one other belief that they held completely in common, a big one: GUN CONTROL, in the sense that only agents of the state, senior party members, and other 'trusted' classes could legally own guns. Kind of a big thing for a so-called libertarian to ignore, but - as with the Iran thing above - you'll find Beale does this sort of thing a lot in "TIA."
"Readers, answer me this: which of the below Two Things that totalitarian communist countries forced their citizens to do, do You think added the most human lives to the final body count?
"A - Give up their religions
"B - Give up their guns"
"The reason Stalin murdered tens of millions of people, was because Peter lost his wolf-hunting gun and couldn't shoot back, not because Marx, Engels, Stalin and every other communist leader hated religion and were deeply influenced by atheistic promethean thought that radically transformed the very shape of their thinking.
"I'd have gone with "B" on that one. But what do I know? I only studied Marxist policies on religion for my BA under a leading historian of communism, reading what they actually said, when I could, in the original languages. (And also read David Aikman's very enlightening Atheism in the Marxist Tradition, which details the facts.)"
Shelton wrote me a sizzling e-mail, most of which I will reproduce below, along with appropriate responses to his historical claims.
"I have read the foolish comments you made regarding my review of "The Irrational Atheist," and have responded to them thereunder.
"Given your life’s work, you must know a lot about China’s recent history, as a result of the many in depth historical discussions I’m sure you have had with the Chinese."
Well, yes, that and a few books.
"As for myself, I lived in China a few years in the late 1990s. Among the people I met during my time in China was Sidney Rittenberg, author of the autobiographical The Man Who Stayed Behind. Dr. Rittenberg was even kind enough to give me a free copy of his book when we met. As my work continued, we struck up a friendship, and through him I was introduced to a number of his Chinese friends; contemporaries of him and his wife, who, like the Rittenbergs, were eyewitnesses to China’s disastrous Cultural Revolution.
"During various discussions of the Cultural Revolution, Rittenberg and the other eyewitnesses described armed gangs of young Red Guards going round all the neighbourhoods, attacking those they deemed "counter-revolutionaries." The overwhelmingly majority of their targets were the working professionals: doctors, community organisers, scientists, writers, academics... basically any and all "intellectuals" that failed to be "100% revolutionary" in their brand of intellectualism.
"In other words, the Red Guards were attacking the exact same groups of people that Theodore Beale - and, to a lesser extent, you - verbally attack in your blogs: scientists, writers, academics and "intellectuals," all of whom dissent from the narrow views which you and Beale propound."
Funny, I thought I WAS a "writer, academic, and intellectual." Does that mean I must "dissent" from my own views?
And does Sheldon even know what they are? Has he been reading my blog, or my own books? What attack on "writers, academics and intellectuals" as a class has he found in any of them? Of course, criticizing other academic arguments is what academics do -- is that all he means by "attack?" So all academics are themselves enemies of their own class, because they tend to disagree with one another? And pointing out errors is the same as herding people you don't like into the Gulag, or pushing them into the sea on barges and then sinking the barges?
And does that make Sheldon a genocidal maniac, too, since he's "attacking" me?
But let's read on.
"All of the violence the Red Guards perpetrated during the Cultural Revolution was demonstrably founded upon exactly the same disposition to fly rabidly at differences of opinion, a disposition which I’ve observed in you, in Beale, and in christian apologists the world over, despite your being proved wrong again and again."
I deny the capacity to "fly," and deny ever having done so "rabidly." But note the tone of Sheldon's own remarks. Santa forgot to give someone a mirror for Christmas.
Again, criticizing error is not the same as murdering your enemies -- or if it is, Sheldon is a mass murderer, if that is he has found any actual errors. Again, we read on in hope.
"Moreover, none of the Red Guards hatreds were founded on anti-religionism, according to all the eyewitnesses I met. Not once did an eyewitness describe attacks which targeted christians or other religious groups. I asked them specifically about it, and according to their accounts, this persecution on religious grounds simply did not happen in China during that time."
Who brought up the Cultural Revolution? Not me, that was Sheldon. WE were talking about communism in general. But SOMEONE destroyed most of the Buddhist temples in China after 1949, and it wasn't Muslims. SOMEONE shut almost every church in the land, and put thousands of pastors in prison, and tortured them there -- I'm talking about people I HAVE met, in some cases -- and it wasn't Hassidic rabbis or Jains on a rampage.
"The worst of it: armed gangs of revolutionaries would go at it in the streets; first, by lining up at opposite ends of the street, then, they'd start arguing by all-in-unison shouting their (100% contradictory) slogans from Mao’s Little Red Book at each other, before coming together in huge altercations. Per the eyewitness accounts, the slogans they shouted back and forth all related to the need for a "people's revolution," the need to eliminate those whose "support for the collective" was inadequate, and suchlike social, political and economic lines of rhetoric; namely, their targets were social and political thinkers of the time whom the Red Guards had adjudged to be "not 100% in support of Mao" and his skewed vision of things."
That's because religion had long since disappeared from public in China. Anyway, only some one in 400 Chinese was a Christian by this time. But the survivors went through hell, whether or not PJ Sheldon heard about it.
Note an interesting contradiction in the Gnu line, here. When distancing themselves from "religion," they define religion as belief in God or in a supernatural world. When trying to blame the Gulag on "religion," somehow, they turn around and define religion in terms of fervency or lack of reason or some other moral weakness, rather than in terms of belief.
"Not once did I hear an eyewitness relate how he’d heard religion-bashing slogans, or anything at all to do with religion, during any of the violence perpetrated during the Cultural Revolution."
Whereas I interviewed a communist official who himself witnessed a mob tear the cross off a church. One of the people who tied the rope to the cross fell to his death, and the official asked me, "Do you think that was the punishment of God?"
"Simply put, direct persecution of religion did not happen in China."
All those tortured and murdered for their faith will be relieved to hear that.
I doubt he can read Chinese, or I might recommend Zhao Tianen's work on Christianity under communism to him. But Tony Lambert describes the communist policies, and their effect, in his works well, as do numerous other writers who know what they're talking about.
"Anything that the Red Guards deemed "antiquated," they indiscriminately destroyed; what any of the destroyed icons may have represented in the religious sense was never touched on, per the eyewitness accounts. It was destroyed because it represented the counter-revolutionary past, not because it was intrinsically religious."
"Read The Man Who Stayed Behind. I defy you to show me one instance of Chinese religious persecution anywhere in Sidney Rittenberg’s book."
Who cares? Heavens Above! Does Shelton imagine that historical reality is to be constrained by the limits of his accidental reading? The sheer narcisism of the argument is astounding.
"Similarly, my reading of history has revealed to me that the world’s most violent communist revolutionary acts were levied primarily against people whose beliefs were "insufficiently radical" for the time, against those who failed to exhibit "100% support for the Party and all its policies." Ignorant christians have extrapolated this into the false notion that the communists assiduously targeted religious believers. They’re half right; communists essentially targeted anybody and everybody who refused to accept the "truth" that happy, joyous communism would lead us all to a brighter future, if only we'd all believe in it unquestioningly."
No one claims that the communists limited the scope of their persecutions to religious believers. But anyone who thinks they did not purposely and methodologically try to destroy religious faiths, is deeply ignorant of 20th Century history, and should close his mouth until he catches up.
Start with Aikman, Atheism in the Marxist Tradition. The details are rich, and there is no gainsaying them: Marx and his allies hated Christianity with a passion, from the get-go. Then read Richard Wurmbrand, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Lambert and Zhao and hundreds of other detailed accounts from the real world. Go and talk to the pastors who were themselves imprisoned, and to this day are sometimes hounded and put behind bars.
"Rather like the christians, who continue to proclaim that if everyone would just curl up, thumb-in-mouth, and believe 100% in jesus christ as the Messiah, then the world would automatically become a better place. Meanwhile, 1500 years later, christianity has not ended war, cured crime or erased poverty; it hasn’t even come close. Even at the apogee of christianity’s cultural and political dominance, the historical record incontestably reveals that a christianised paradise filled with people "loving one another" was still a long, long way off."
The world HAS become a much better place, because of the Gospel. Readers of this blog, and of my books, know that I do not make that claim without a great deal of support to back it up.
"Throughout history, the biggest persecutors of christians have always been other christians."
Nonsense. The biggest persecutors of Christians under the Jews were Jews, under the Romans, pagan Romans, under the Muslims, Muslims, and under the communists, communists. There HAVE been periods when Christians (real or imagined) have persecuted other Christians. But "always" is patently false.
"That’s how we know for certain that christianity is not "of God." If it truly were of God, how come christianity has completely failed to achieve even a modest manifestation of the tinsel-coated sentiment it has paid lip-service to through the centuries? Love one another, as I have loved you.
"So much for all that rubbish," said the christians. "We want power, the power to judge others."
"Just like the communist revolutionaries. And the results, despite the centuries of lip-service christians have paid to loving one another, were more of less the same."
Not at all. For all the crimes of Christendom, which have indeed been considerable, and which as the Bible itself predicts ARE based on pride and the love of power, the Gospel has indeed transformed the world in radical ways for the better. Communism mostly made things much worse, though it was not completely bereft of useful acts. (Such as improving health care at times, and raising the status of women, under the prior influence of the Gospel.)
"Mr. Marshall, I base the above contentions on interviews with Chinese eyewitnesses, as well as the account of Sidney Rittenberg, a respected American expert on a foreign power who did not merely study China’s history, he lived it for half a century."
That "argument" is subjective and entirely negative. Sheldon did not hear about persecution of religion. Yeah, well, the communists almost wiped it out, destroying tens of thousands of religious houses, killing millions of believers. Solzhenitsyn heard of them, and met them -- "prisoner transports and graveyards, prisoner transports and graveyards" -- they challenged him, till he became a Christian himself, finding that Christians were the only one to whom the camp philosophy of "Who to Whom" did not stick. But Sheldon, the sometime traveler to China and reader of a book, has not heard of any of this, therefore it did not happen.
"On what do you base yours? Books written by sessile (?) "China watchers" who rarely step outside their libraries? Or, a patchwork of start-stop conversations with your broken Chinglish-speaking students in various Bible-study groups? The ignorance you showed of Iran's history in your comment on my Amazon review was simply astonishing. I presume you've a similar perspective when it comes to your reading of the history of China?"
I was traveling China, and speaking to its inhabitants in their own language, years before this silly fellow swarmed onto those shores and began gossipping with a few of its inhabitants in "Chinglish," apparently.
And what I said about Iran was accurate, too.
"BTW, I’m sure those young "christian" Chinese that hang out with you do so out of their desire to learn more about your false, never-risen jesus, and they’ve no interest in those extracurricular hours spent "practicing their English conversation" with a native speaker, or anything of the sort. They know far more than you think they do, Mr. Marshall; never underestimate the Chinese."
I don't. Tens of millions have come to know Christ in recent years, for good reasons, and I expect great things from them.
I don't think I'll inflict the entire discourse on my patient readers. Let's skip to the final few paragraphs, the climax of Shelton's high dungeon, where he reveals most clearly the emotions that move him:
"The feeble apologetics of you and your cronies are nothing new. Throughout its history, christianity has consistently stood against scientific discoveries that have revealed the true nature of the universe. Until, after grudgingly admitting that Galileo et al were not in fact heretics whose discoveries warranted death by fire and torture, christians finally started reconciling each new scientific discovery with their increasingly proved-wrong faith, and ascribing each to some new, increasingly vague theistical plan - that is, to use plainer language, altering religion to suit science and making of God a plastic character, to be remodeled whenever the obvious truth disproves one of His original legendary attributes."
Uh, Galileo was neither tortured nor put to death. Neither was "et al," whoever that is supposed to be. (This charge is best left vague, as Oxford historian of science Allan Chapman demonstrates.)
And Christians invented modern science, as Rodney Stark clearly shows in For the Glory of God, as have many qualified historians.
"All of which mirrors your ludicrous, ham-handed attempts to equate Confucianism with christianity and Shangdi with the judeo-christian jehovah-god. It’s a syndrome I have actually seen before, the attempt to salvage one’s christian faith by bringing the Chinese - the world’s longest-standing non-christian holdout - on board with your fake, plastic mythology, clumsily reconciling your religious faith with the philosophies of the Chinese, shaking your magic rain-dance stick at them and shouting: "Poof! You’re all in fact christians! Hallelujah!"
People who hate, said C. S. Lewis, render themselves incapable of seeing. This is clearly demonstrated when a would-be critic simply imagines or invents positions for those he hates, failing thereby to read and recognize and understand his target's actual position.
Of course I do not "equate Confucianism with christianity." (Why does the former merit a cap, but the latter does not? Another proof of this fellow's deep and unreasoning hatred.) And many non-Christian Chinese have recognized the close resemblance between Shang Di (caps) and the "judeo-christian jehovah-god" (none.) Speaking of "clumsy" and "ham-handed," how petty can one get than to ignore the rules of grammar in this absurd manner? If anyone is "clumsy" for confusing Shang Di with God, though, then blame Matteo Ricci, then the great Chinese converts, then the greatest emperor in Chinese history -- the Kang Xi emperor -- then the greatest western scholar of ancient Chinese religion, James Legge, then the communist authors of modern Chinese-English dictionaries.
Lots of "blame" to go around. Why start with "clumsy" old me?
Nor, of course, do I claim believing in God alone makes anyone a "christian."
"A mere knowledge of the approximate dimensions of the visible universe is enough to destroy forever the notion of a personal godhead whose whole care is expended upon the tiniest of dust-specks that is mankind, and whose only true and original Messiah was dispatched to save the insignificant vermin, or humans, who inhabit this one relatively microscopic globe. It’s true that science fails to positively refute religion - instead, it causes religious points of view to appear so senseless and so thoroughly improbable that a large majority of men see religion for what it is: false revelation, through and through."
Well now the whole human race is "insignificant vermin." Which reminds me of Chesterton's observation that people who hate Christianity begin to deny sense, reason, morality, humanity, even their own existence, in their attempts to blot God out.
Though as Lewis pointed out, the tininess of Earth was common knowledge to the Medievals, already.
"And Chinese mainlanders, even the ones who will do anything for the opportunity to practice English conversation with a native speaker, generally agree with me. Your blindness to the truth notwithstanding... "
Shelton is under (how many false assumptions is this now?) that I am some sort of an evangelist in China, that I am starting Bible studies here, and that the tens of millions of Chinese who have come to Christ in recent decades are doing so so they can practice English with me. I'll have to share the joke with some of them.