Saturday, July 23, 2016

"Don't Blame Atheism for Stalin!" Why Michael Sherlock is wrong

Image result for stalin cartoon
"Jesus made me do it!"
The New Atheism has a lasting grudge against history.  Sometimes that grudge is expressed overtly by atheists who try to diminish the discipline ("history is bunk") in comparison with science, to which the New Atheism falls collectively prostrate.  But as even so radical an atheist as Richard Carrier pointed out, in the end science is a province of history, since all knowledge obtained through experiments or other observation is in the end knowledge of events that happened in the past.

But the New Atheism burst onto the public consciousness in the wake of 9/11, when western intellectuals like Richard Dawkins sought to tar the Christian faith with the same brush with which they more plausibly painted Islam.  (Though Dawkins now admits that Christianity has reformed, in the kindly afterglow of the Enlightenment, so the real problem at the moment is an unreconstructed Islam.)

The reason the New Atheism arose at just that moment, I think, is because a new generation of ignorant young skeptics had been taught the purported evils of the Christian past, but left ignorant of the far greater evils that radical atheism (and Islam) had much more recently visited upon the world.  They are like the rabbit in the Chronicle of Narnia that sits next to a great waterfall (of blood), yet hears the drop of a pin a hundred miles away.  Often the brainwashing inflicted upon our children involved  straightforward historical falsehoods.  The New Atheism probably couldn't have arisen in 1989, just after the Wall had come down: the world would have laughed.  But give public school teachers a couple decades, and such ignorance of history that an outspoken socialist like Bernie Sanders could gain traction in a major party without a word of explanation or apology, and the New Atheism can appeal to a generation that knows nothing of the Gulag Archipelago or the most basic facts about communism.

So both Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris relentlessly reminded readers of the Inquisition, which happened most of a millenium ago, but talked about "Joseph Stalin" as a mere apologetic "debating point"  (as Dawkins put it) that needs to be refuted.  Christopher Hitchens also tried to shrug off the fact that atheists had just murdered a hundred million innocent people a few decades before, in his popular book god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  These gentlemen argued that atheism had nothing whatsoever to do with the crimes of Stalin.  (Who alone they mentioned, being apparently ignorant of the fact that Stalin was merely one of many cruel communist dictators.)  Some New Atheists have even dared suggest that Christianity was to blame for Stalin's crimes, because he attended a religious school as a young man.

In The Truth Behind the New Atheism, I responded, in part:

"This isn't just a 'debating point' to me.  I researched faith and communism under Donald Treadgold, a leading historian of Marxism-Leninism.  I've eaten meals with people who lost loved ones or spent decades in prison for their faith . . . Stalin wasn't the only atheist of modern times.  Nor did he emerge from a vacuum."  

And so as an historian -- which none of these gentlemen can claim to be -- I answered their counter-arguments over several pages. David Aikman also focused on this issue in his response to the New Atheism.

I'm not going to defend my arguments in that book, or my more thorough explanation for "Why Marx Went Wrong" in my earlier Jesus and the Religions of Man, in this post.  So far as I know, no one with any relevant knowledge or credentials has ever challenged my arguments.

But as the New Atheism continues its free-fall into historical ignorance, new expressions of the bigotry that follows in the train of that ignorance arise, as winter follows autumn.  In this post, I will answer one of those expressions, by an Australian grad student named Michael Sherlock.  Michael is worth answering not because he is knowledgeable or a skilled logician -- his talent lies in purple prose more than reasoning, in history least of all -- but because he has written a lively post on this subject which some silly fools seem to take seriously.

The article is called "The Atheist Atrocities Fallacy -- Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot."

Sherlock begins with a lively three-paragraph rant against apologists who make the argument he wants to refute.  (Without, of course, addressing my rebuttal of the first crop of New Atheists, nor that by other historians like Dr. Aikman.)  Half his paper (7 1/2 pages of my printout) then argues that Adolf Hitler was a Christian, not an atheist.  Sherlock devotes a little more than two pages to asserting that while Stalin was a "confirmed atheist," Christianity, not atheism, was to blame for his crimes.  He devotes a bit less space to showing that Pol Pot was a Buddhist, not an atheist, and his atrocities "parallel" and should be blamed on Theraveda Buddhsim.   Then he "clinches" his argument by describing five fallacies that we apologists allegedly commit in blaming atheism for these crimes, before ending with an appeal to the Problem of Pain which he deems clever.

Sherlock's article is a target-rich environment.   Let us start with the introduction, then examine his claims about Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, and Adolf Hitler, in that order.   We won't need to say much about Hitler, since the subject (like the man) has been done to death, and most informed Christians don't claim Hitler was an atheist, anyway.  But this paper represents many common confusions, on all levels.  While the writing is lively and skillful, the thinking is muddled.  And the paper shows just how desperately modern atheists need to begin making peace with history, before that is what their movement rightly becomes.  (After becoming a laughing stock.)

Opening Rant and its Problems

"Religious apologists, particularly those of the Christian variety, are big fans of what I have dubbed, the atheist atrocities fallacy.  Christians commonly employ this fallacy to shield their egos from the harsh reality of the brutality of their own religion,(1) by utilizing a most absurd form of the tu quoque (“you too”) fallacy, mingled with numerous other logical fallacies and historical inaccuracies.  Despite the fact that the atheist atrocities fallacy has already been thoroughly exposed by Hitchens and other great thinkers (2), it continues to circulate amongst the desperate believers of a religion in its death throes (3).  Should an atheist present a believer with the crimes committed by the Holy See of the Inquisition(s) (4), the Crusaders (5) and other faith-wielding misanthropes (6), they will often hear the reply; “Well, what about Stalin, Pol Pot and Hitler? They were atheists, and they killed millions!”" (7) 

#1 Whereas atheists shield their eyes from the painful truth that the Gospel has liberated billions of people, and cultures around the world, changing our planet for the better.  No one who has yet to read at least a large proportion of these books and articles should even try to deny it.  

#2 Christopher Hitchens was a "great thinker?"  I concede he was a pithy journalist who thought for himself and wrote entertaining and sometimes insightful screeds.  But he was not a historian, nor a scholar of the religion that he attacked.  His views about communism are no match for those of scholars who know something about the movement.  Hitchens didn't lay a finger on my argument, nor those of David Aikman, Michael Burleigh, Donald Treadgold, or for that matter the views of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who summed up what he saw as the core problem of Marxism by saying, "Men have forgotten God."  

However "bright" Hitchens may have been, insights based on inadequate knowledge most often lead one into error. 

#3 Christianity is not in its "death throes."  There are more followers of Jesus today than at any time in the past.

#4  The Inquisition?  Small potatoes.  Joseph Stalin used to kill about as many innocent people before lunch some days, as all the inquisitors combined, killed over several centuries.

#5 The Crusaders are why we are writing in English, not Arabic, and using computers, not toilet paper in outhouses behind mud huts, so our masters don't see and whip us, or take our children away to serve as slaves.  I don't apologize for the fact that the West finally responded to four hundred years of Muslim imperialism: I am grateful.  (While, of course, recognizing the sins of some Crusaders, including both pogroms and one outbreak of cannibalism.)

#6 "Faith-wielding misanthropes?"  Sherlock apparently refers here to the myth, taken on blind faith by all New Atheists worthy of the name, that Christian "faith" is meant to be irrational.

#7 One does not "often" hear the claim that Adolf Hitler was an atheist, at least not from informed Christians.  This is not entirely a straw man, but most Christians who write on the subject seem to know better, as most educated atheists know better than to call Hitler a Christian.

"Given the obstinate nature of religious faith and the willful ignorance it cultivates in the mind of the believer, (8) I am quite certain that this article will not be the final nail in this rancid and rotting coffin.(9)  Having said this, I do hope it will contribute to the arsenal required by those who value reason, facts and evidence (10), in their struggle against the fallacies perpetually flaunted by those who do not value the truth above their own egocentric delusions, delusions inspired by an unquenchable thirst for security, no matter how frighteningly false its foundation." (11)
"Before addressing the primary weaknesses of the atheist atrocities fallacy itself, I would like to attend to each of these three homicidal stooges (12); Stalin, Pol Pot and Hitler, who are constantly trotted out to defend a religious worldview. (13) I will lend Hitler the most time, as the claim that he was an atheist represents a most egregious violation of the truth." (14)

(8) Sherlock here confirms my suspicion mentioned above that he buys into the ignorant New Atheist doctrine that Christianity recommends "blind faith."  We refuted that error in True Reason, and indeed I already refuted it in Jesus and the Religions of Man and The Truth Behind the New Atheism.  It is what Larry Hurtado calls a "zombie argument."

(9) "Rancid and rotting coffin."  Nice alliteration.  But coffins, being made of wood, rot without becoming rancid -- it is the corpse inside that gives offense to the nostrils as it decomposes, like rank historical cliches such as the "Blind Faith Meme."

(10) Because, of course, Christians like Augustine, Aquinas, Occam, Kepler, Pascal, Newton, Descartes, Locke, and the whole pious crowd that invented modern science, placed no value whatever on "reason, facts and evidence."  It is hard to decide whether the Trumpian self-praise or the gratuitous implicit slur against so many of the world's greatest thinkers is the more obnoxious and ridiculous over-generalization, here.

(11) Let me again give Sherlock credit at this point for cadence and alliteration, however falsely the affected facts may be fixed onto the face of genuine and verifiable phenomena.

(12) Stooges?  In what sense?  Whatever else one may say of Stalin, Pol Pot, and Hitler, all three do seem to have been fully in command of their horrid movements.

(13) These villains are trotted out to attack an atheistic worldview, not so much to defend a so-called religious one.

(14) It is suspicious that Sherlock focuses so intensely on Hitler, since the man is seldom called an atheist. (I have never done so.)  It is also suspicious that Sherlock fails to mention Mao Zedong, who may have killed more innocent people than any of the others (he ruled a larger country).  Not to mention Marx or Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Khrushchev, Beria, Brezhnev, Ho Chi Minh, the ever-lovable Kim Clan in North Korea, Enver Hofha, Abimael Guzman, the Castros, or the rest of the bloody crew that ruled Eastern Europe.  But more on the chasms in Sherlock's historical consciousness later.

So Michael packs fourteen errors into three short opening paragraphs, some of them egregious.  Way to go, Sherlock.  But he's only getting warmed up.

Now let's look at the three examples Sherlock attempts to refute.

Was Pol Pot a Buddhist?

Sherlock thinks so:

"Pol Pot, possibly not even an atheist, but almost certainly a Buddhist, believed in the teachings of the Buddha, no matter how perverted his interpretations may or may not have been . . . Not only was Pol Pot a Theravada Buddhist, but the soil in which his atrocities were sewn was also very Buddhist.
"In Alexander Laban Hinton’s book, Why Did They Kill?: Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide,’ Hinton drew attention to the role that the belief in karma played in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, particularly with regards to the cementation of a docilely accepted social hierarchy, not too dissimilar from Stalin’s ready-made Russian religious tyranny, as well as highlighting the Buddhist origins of Pol Pot’s ideological initiatives.
"Hinton remarks:
"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…  [30]
"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."
The fact that Sherlock thinks he has presented any evidence at all that Pol Pot was a Buddhist in these paragraphs, ought to embarrass the Australian teachers who educated him.  (Whereas the "work" of Raphael Lataster ought to make the whole continent cringe: Sherlock can, at least, write.)  "Pol Pot was a Theraveda Buddhist" is a mere assertion, not "evidence."  The fact that communist Cambodia accepted a hierarchy is not evidence that it was "really" Buddhist, either -- after all, the alternative to listening to party bosses was death.  Wolves are not Theraveda Buddhists, I don't think, yet they also accept hierarchy: that's part of our biological hard-drive, not the unique feature of one religion.  That one can find further parallels between Kmer Rouge thought and Theraveda Buddhistm, such as the concept of "consciousness" (not unique to Asian Marxism, or Marxism at all -- Jung mentioned the idea, did he not?), or that the Kmer Rouge retained teachers (who doesn't?), or even asceticism (here America is the outlier, in having cast this perennial and universal notion aside so completely), is not evidence that Pol Pot was a Buddhist, either.  Military service BY DEFINITION involves renunciation of pleasures.  (And notice that Hinton offers four or five synonyms for asceticism --"detachment" as well as "the elimination of attachment," for instance, as if the two didn't mean the same thing -- apparently hoping the reader will mistake mere repetition for a cup of evidence that runneth over.) 

But Sherlock gives not the faintest hint of any real evidence that Pol Pot was a Buddhist who "believed in the teachings of the Buddha," in all this.   Not one word from Pol Pot about the Four Noble Truths, about the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment, about reincarnation, about the Buddhas -- not a word.  
In fact, Pol Pot was a communist and an atheist.  He may have taken up a few of the cultural trappings of Buddhism, which had after all been the dominant faith of his country for many centuries.  But as Loyola professor of Religious Studies Catherine Wessinger notes (my emphasis):

"Democratic Kampuchea was officially an atheist state, and the persecution of religion by the Kmer Rouge was matched in severity only by the persecution of religion in the communist states of Albania and North Korea, so there were not any direct historical continuities of Buddhism into the Democratic Kampuchea era."  

Or as the Asian Studies Center at Michigan State University explains:

 It is estimated that of more than 65,000 monks and nuns living in 1969, less than 3000 survived the civil war and genocide of the 1970's. Estimates of the death toll during the Khmer Rouge Regime are that about 1.7 million people (of a 1975 population of 7 million) were killed or died of starvation. Buddhism was a special target of the Khmer Rouge; in addition to killing the monks and nuns, most of the 3, 369 temples in existence in 1970 were destroyed, as were Christian churches and Islamic mosques. Monastery buildings which were not destroyed were used for storage, prisons, or torture chambers. By 1979, Buddhism in Cambodia was virtually destroyed.

What do you think?  Murdering someone is often considered good evidence that one does not like that man or woman, isn't it?  If you close all the Buddhist temples and kill nineteen out of twenty monks, can't that be taken as solid evidence that Pol Pot was something other than a believing Buddhist?  Maybe even that he disliked Buddhism?  Or is that crazy talk?

But no, Sherlock tells us that Pol Pot was a zealous Theraveda Buddhist.  The sheer historical ignorance it takes to make that claim about the founder of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, who learned his ideology from communists in Paris, was supported by Mao's China, murdered 95% of the Buddhist monks in his country, and destroyed the religion to which he allegedly belonged, without offering a speck of anything but the most subjective and vague evidence ("parallelmania") to support it, is astounding.

Meanwhile, the name Mao Zedong is not so much as mentioned in Sherlock's article.  But Mao invented and perfected the innovative doctrine of encircling the cities with the countryside.  During the Cultural Revolution (which started in 1966), Mao persecuted teachers, and sent young people out of the cities to work in the farms.  That's exactly the strategy that the Kmer Rouge followed, only with even greater violence.  Coincidence?  Sherlock does not even raise the question.  It is as if he had never heard of Chairman Mao.  (Whose mother, let me add, was a Mahayana, not Theraveda Buddhist.  But what her son become, was probably more her husband's fault.   And that of Mao Zedong himself, who was an atheist.)

Was Joseph Stalin an (honorary) Christian?  

Sherlock's attempt to protect atheism from the bad name of Joseph Stalin is just as ridiculous.  Since errors fly thick and fast here, let me revert to my earlier form of quoting his remarks at length, while marking points for rebuttal below.

"Of these three characters, Stalin was the only confirmed atheist, yet Hitchens thoroughly dealt with the religious nature of Stalin’s dictatorship in a manner that has left religious apologists without sufficient reply.(1)  Notwithstanding the fact that Stalin was raised as a Christian under the religious influence of his mother, who enrolled him in seminary school (2), and that Stalin later took it upon himself to study for the priesthood (3), as Hitchens and others have pointed out, Stalin merely stepped into a ready-made religious tyranny (4), constructed by the Russian Orthodox Church and paved with the teachings of St. Paul (5).
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.                                           Romans 13:1-2
(1) Since Sherlock shows no sign of having read my, or Aikman's, rebuttal, "apologists can't reply to Hitchen's smashing of their lame position" is just an empty boast.  
(2) Christians provided the only available education.  "Stalin went to a Christian school, so Christianity is to blame for Stalinism" involves some pretty grotesque historical shortcuts.  Should we then blame Secular Humanists for Fred Phelps, since he apparently went to public schools at times?  Christian teachers have educated billions, without making all their students Christians.     
(3) Stalin was given a scholarship, but became an atheist as a first-year student.  (Paul Vitz suggests his poor relationship with his father might have had something to do with that, as I recall.)
(4) "Stalin stepped into a ready-made religious tyranny?"  Baloney.  The Bolsheviks completely remade society, from the top down.  Old institutions were abolished, as clean a sweep as the world had seldom seen.  Leninism, then Stalinism, were vastly more cruel than late Tsarist Russia, as Solzhenitsyn, for one, often pointed out in his examination of how prisoners were treated.  In fact, late Tsarist Russia had been liberalizing for some time: the Bolsheviks' competitors were far more liberal than they were, and Peter Stolypin instituted needed reforms that showed real promise, in a period in which Russia was modernizing quickly.  The period before World War I was one of rapid economic progress and an artistic golden age.    

And in that era, said Solzhenitsyn:

"By the time of the Revolution, faith had virtually disappeared in Russian educated circles; and amongst the uneducated, its health was threatened."

The Bolsheviks used the sickle of Enlightenment materialism to cut the blossom of a developing Russian culture, and the hammer of Marxist ruthlessness to pound the garden in which it grew into a parking lot for Uncle Joe's tank.  Far from "stepping into" ready-made "religious tyranny," Stalin actually took over from Vladimir Lenin, an ardent atheist bigot who had already murdered hundreds of thousands of innocent people.  Sherlock never even mentions Lenin either, strangely enough.  The sheer historical ignorance of the man, or his willingness to take remarkable historical shortcuts, is astounding.  
(5) Stalin learned political subservience from St. Paul?  This is a bizarre claim, indeed.   Joseph Stalin became a political revolutionary in seminary, read Lenin, then sought to overthrow all existing social and political structures through violent revolution.  That means shooting, stabbing, or bombing the authorities.  And St. Paul is to blame for that, because he told Christians to obey the government and pay taxes?  Sherlock does not seem to realize that after Joseph Stalin studied in seminary, he became an atheist and a COMMUNIST REVOLUTIONARY. 
Of course, as I explain in Jesus and the Religions of Man, once a revolution occurs, power-hungry revolutionaries will come to desire obedient subjects.  That is a constant of human history: one can find the same trend in ancient Greece.  Read Polybius, for instance.  Or George Orwell's Animal Farm.  
So was Christianity to blame for the fact that the Russians submitted to an atheistic regime?  If you want to try that line, then how about crediting Christianity in America for resisting communism so vigorously?  (Which it did.)
In fact, Christianity inspired resistance to Marxist revolution and oppression around the world.  (Which is probably one reason the present crop of communists in China is so anti-Christian.)  Lech Walensa, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Pope John Paul II were just three of the heroes who helped overthrow communist tyranny.  It was atheists in America (like Joy Davidman, who would become C. S. Lewis' wife!) who converted to communism, far more often than the Christians.  In fact, to this day, some four fifths of atheists in the world were tutored in unbelief by obediently listening to top-down communist propaganda.  (One meets them all around China -- many of my students!)

So if Sherlock's claim refers to Joseph Stalin, it is bizarre.  If it refers to Russian peasants, it is historically uninformed and ignores far too many facts.   
We trek on through the thicket of errors, a well-greased and sharpened machete now stationed permanently in our right hands.  
"Such teachings were the inspirational well from which the Russian Orthodox Church drew their justifications to support this new Tsar, causing the more sensible fringe of the Church to flee to the United States in contravention of St. Paul’s teachings.(6)
"Here then, the central premise of Hitchens’ argument is worthy of reiteration.  Had Stalin inherited a purely rational secular edifice,(7) one established upon the ethos espoused by the likes of Lucretius, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Einstein (8) and other free thinking and rational secularists, then the apologist’s argument would hold slightly more weight, but such wasn’t the case.  Stalin merely tore the existing religious labels off the Christian Inquisition,(9) the enforcement of Christian orthodoxy, the Crusades, the praising of the priesthood, (10) messianism, and Edenic ideas of a terrestrial religious-styled utopia,(11) and re-branded them with the red of communism.  Had this Christian machine not been in place, then it is more than likely Stalin wouldn’t have had the vehicle he needed to succeed in causing so much suffering in the name of his godless religion (12), Communism.
(6) St. Paul told Russians not to emigrate to the US?  What version of the Bible is Sherlock reading?  Oddly, though, Samuel Adams found in those same Scriptures abundant justification to help establish the US: the highly religious country that proved the "fortress of democracy" and freedom in the 20th Century, again and again.  
(7) Sherlock is conflating ideas ("secular") with values ("rational").  This is a hidden form of the True Scotsman fallacy.  The Soviets were "irrational" (from Sherlock's point of view), so they don't count as pure secularists.  But Sherlock argues that atheism does not come with values attached.  That's a sword that cuts both ways: if it allows atheism to escape all culpability for crimes, it also denies atheism credit for good works.  
(8) Einstein wasn't old enough to influence the Russian Revolution. 
(9) "Stalin merely tore the existing religious labels off the Christian inquisition?"  What nonsense.  The inquisition was in France and Spain, most of a millennia earlier, and didn't resemble communist persecutions except in the fact that they were persecutions.  (Which occur in every society.)  This is just hand-waving assertion, without any real attempt to support a historical claim with historical evidence. 
(10) Joseph Stalin praised the priesthood?  He joined the communist party, which was Lenin's instrument of oppression and control that killed and imprisoned priests.  The communists were not monks, or much like them.  And if we're going to talk about the communist party, shouldn't we at least mention Vladimir Lenin, who established it?   
(11) Marx wanted to set up an earthly paradise, or at least a "dictatorship of the proletariat."  By contrast, Jesus said "My kingdom is not of this world."  Marx, in his focus on the City of Man, was a disciple of Plato, not Jesus. 

(12) "Godless religion?"  Isn't that a contradiction in terms?  I thought religion was to be defined as involving belief in supernatural beings or gods?  Actually Sherlock doesn't define religion.  Perhaps that because sometimes, he needs it to mean "belief in supernatural gods."  At other times, as here, he needs it to mean "strongly held fundamental beliefs about reality, whatever they may be," or as Paul Tillich called it, an "ultimate concern."  

I prefer this latter definition, precisely because of the kind of shell game that atheists like Sherlock try to play.  Communism insisted that there is no God in heaven.  But socially, communist ideology and leaders often played roles similar to those played by Messiahs, gurus and divinities, and the ideologies they inspired.  In short, Sherlock is guilty of equivocation, of playing on two meanings of "religion" to confuse his readers.  On the usual atheist definition of religion, "godless religion" is a contradiction in terms.  But if our goal is to somehow blame religion for an atheist mass movement, then we expand the meaning of the word "religion" so that it can justify so patently bizarre an accusation.  
"To quote Hitchens:
"For Joseph Stalin, who had trained to be a priest in a seminary in Georgia, the whole thing was ultimately a question of power. (12) “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 (13), 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 (14) that could attach its traditional appeal to his. 
(13) Speaking of power, it's odd that the name of Friedrich Nietzsche never comes up in Sherlocks' exposition, either.  Hasn't he heard of that famous atheist, either?  Nietzsche famously blamed Christianity for being too weak, for not busting skulls with sufficient vigor.  
Jesus was famous for giving up power, and dying on the cross.  Nietzsche hated that weakness.  So to whom should we trace Stalin's attitude, if we don't ascribe it to human nature?  

Marx and Engels (two other key historical figures whom Sherlock oddly never mentions) wrote that communism "abolishes all morality," as well as "all religion."  This connection between abolishing religion and morality, then, is not one which Christians impose on the communists, it is one the communists very deliberately and emphatically made themselves.     
(14) Science under the popes was, in fact, generally remarkable free, despite a few obvious contrary examples.  (Which is why we always hear of Galileo's spell of house arrest.)  For a more balanced view, see, for instance, James Hannam's The Genesis of Science, or Allan Chapman's Slaying the Dragons: Destroying Myths in the History of Science and Faith.
(15) Stalin didn't "maintain" the Church, he constrained it, by theft, murder, torture, mass enslavement, propaganda, and persecution.  The Church didn't need Stalin's help!  But after Hitler invaded, Stalin realized he might need the help of the Church, and backed off temporarily.  
How perverse to portray a lull in persecution as if it demonstrated the guilt of the harassed, tortured, and murdered victims who welcomed that lull!  (Not that there were no genuine quislings, of course -- Wurmbrand writes incisively on that.)

So Was Atheism to Blame for Stalin? 
Sherlock is adamant in denying any relationship between the tens of millions of murders committed in or by the Soviet Union, and the atheist component of the official communist ideology.  In fact, RELIGION (here meaning "supernatural" religion) was to blame!   
"Hitchens was not alone in seeing the parallels between Russia’s old supernatural religion and its new secular one.
"In Emilio Gentile’s ‘Politics as Religion,’ Gentile describes the sacralizing of Stalin’s regime in the following words:
"The sacralization of the party opened the way to the sacralization of Stalin when he became the supreme leader.  After 1929, the political religion of Russia mainly concentrated on the deification of Stalin, who until his death in 1953 dominated the party and Soviet system like a tyrannical and merciless deity. 
"That vast and seemingly bottomless “reservoir of religious credulity,” as Hitchens so eloquently phrased it, which served to subdue the servile Soviets for hundreds of years beneath the yoke of an equally brutal supernatural religion, was the very fountain of boundless unthinking acquiescence that Stalin, having adorned himself in the Tsar’s clothes, utilized to send countless innocent Russians to their deaths.  Where would Stalin have found such docile servitude, servitude that fed the flames of his secular religious tyranny, had Lucretius, Thomas Paine, Albert Einstein or Thomas Jefferson bestowed upon these poor religious Russians, their intellectual legacy?  To answer in a word, nowhere."

Being historically ignorant, and not apparently having read Tolstoy or Dostoevsky (though this is hard to believe of Hitchens), these gentlemen are apparently unaware of the rich vein of  "Enlightenment" thinking that permeated the Russian intelligentsia long before Vladimir Lenin and others brought the holy books of Marx and Engels to Russia.   To this day, in a Chinese textbook my students use, the Chinese communists present their beliefs as a fusion of Greek humanism, western Enlightenment thought, and parallel Chinese strands of post-religious Enlightenment thinking.  

Thomas Jefferson was not an atheist, why does Sherlock bring him up?  Neither were Einstein or Paine.  Sherlock appears to be conflating "atheism" with "liberal democratic thinking," here, which is part of his variation on the No True Scotsman theme, smuggling in moral values he associates with atheism, and denying the atheist labels to those who fall short of those values.  

But the confusion Sherlock maintains about the impact of atheism becomes "clear" when he brings up Stalin again in the "logical fallacies" section of his piece. 

"False Analogy Fallacy
"This fallacy depends upon the existence of an often minor analogous factor, in this case, the belief in god versus a lack of belief in god, god being the analogous component, and extrapolating from this minor analogy, conditions that are alleged to affect both positions, when the truth of the matter happens to be, the two (religion and atheism) are not analogous at all. [34]
"For apologists to overcome the existence of this fallacy, they must show that atheism is a religion, but the very definition of atheism circumvents any such attempt.  Atheism, although encompassing varying degrees of disbelief, is not a system of beliefs, but an unsystematic absence of god-belief, that is all.  It has no doctrines, traditions and most importantly, no beliefs.  Unless there is some secret atheist bible from which Stalin drew inspiration for his crimes, there is absolutely no reason to suggest that his lack of belief in a supernatural deity had anything to do with his messianic and maniacal behavior."
The problems and contradictions here are many: but also the opportunity to finally understand what "religion" is, and how it relates to "atheism." 

(1) Sherlock has just been telling us that Stalinism was a "godless religion."  Has he forgotten?  Because now he seems to think there are no godless religions.  

(2) Most dictionaries do not define atheism as an "unsystematic absence of god-belief."  Many more properly define atheism as the positive rejection of belief in God.  (Not gods, which may be merely ghosts or spirits.)  And it is hard to see how atheism could be merely an absence of belief.  Babies are not "atheists" in any normal sense of the word.  Rocks are not atheists.  People who have never thought about the subject are not atheists.  

(3) Even a lack of belief can be deadly, though.  If an airplane pilot lacks a belief in gravity, all hands may perish.  So Sherlock's argument fails.  It may well be that Stalin lacked some key belief -- "communism abolishes all morality, all religion" -- which resulted in or encouraged his cruel acts.  How hard is that to understand?  And again, it wasn't just Stalin who tortured, murdered, and destroyed priceless works of human heritage: the Communist Holocaust was a cross-cultural, several generation collaborative effort in destruction.

(4) In fact, as Richard Wurmbrand relates, communist torturers and jailers often goaded Christians with the absence of God.  As even George Orwell's anti-hero, Big Brother's little torturing brother, O'Brien, says to Winston Smith in the torture chamber: "Do you believe in God?  Then what will stop us?"  For O'Brien, the absence of God was highly significant -- as Dostoevsky put it, "If there is no God, then everything is permitted."  That was precisely O'Brien's logic.

(5) In a sense it is true that atheism in itself has no "doctrines, traditions or beliefs," aside from "There is no God."  In the same way, theism has no "doctrines, traditions or beliefs" aside from "There is a God."  Religions (in Tillich's sense) are developed systems of belief and practice in which theism or atheism may be a single element.  Therefore Communism, Secular Humanism, and Christianity, may all be seen as religions.  One can compare atheism to theism, or Communism or Secular Humanism to Christianity.  One cannot compare atheism per se to Christianity, not because atheism does not impact how people act for good or evil (it does, as atheists often testify!), but because it is only one element in more developed religions or (if you don't like that word) ideologies. 
(6) What is truly shocking, and bizarre, in Sherlock's comments here, is this strange sentence, which displays no hint of historical understanding whatsoever:

"Unless there is some secret atheist bible from which Stalin drew inspiration for his crimes, there is absolutely no reason to suggest that his lack of belief in a supernatural deity had anything to do with his messianic and maniacal behavior."

"Secret atheist Bible?"   How can anyone who dares write on the subject, fail at this point to even mention the vast cataract of published secular propaganda that formed, informed, and transformed the Marxist-Leninist movement around the world, including in Russia?  Communism was an Enlightenment project.  As David Aikman shows in consummate detail, Karl Marx was deeply inspired by the stories of Faust and Prometheus, as interpreted for modern Europeans, for instance by the English poet, Percy Shelley.  Marx even quoted Prometheus, "In a word, I detest all gods!"

Secret atheist Bible?  Well no, there was not one atheist Bible, any more than there is just one theist holy book.  But the Enlightenment movement was a highly bookish one, and it could not be any clearer (Aikman shows this in great detail) that early communism drew its inspiration from numerous strains of Enlightenment writing -- Feurbach, Hegel, Bauer, Tylor, and so on.  (Marx was also influenced by seedy friends he met at the University of Berlin, and Engels of course by Marx.)  

That the communists' virulent rejection of God "had to do with" their "maniacal behavior" is, again, crystal clear from their own writings.  It is not a Christian apologist who linked "communism abolishes all religion" to "communism abolishes all morality" -- these assertions lie smack dab in the center of the most famous communist book ever written, The Communist Manifesto, penned by Marx and Engels.  

Is it really so absurd to suppose Joseph Stalin read that book, and was influenced by it?  

What is absurd is that Sherlock does not seem to have heard of the book.  

True, as I showed sixteen years ago in Jesus and the Religions of Man (in a chapter that the historian Dr. Donald Treadgold, founder of the Slavic Review, read and affirmed), communist morality was complex and self-contradictory.  I argued that communism did not only fail to actually abolish morality, in truth it instituted not one but three separate new moral systems.  My argument in that book describes the reality of communist experience, and the contradictions between Marxism and human experience pretty well, I think.  (The book has gotten great reviews.)  

The Hitchens-Sherlock take on the same subject, is ill-informed, adolescent, apologetic twaddle.  Sherlock has, apparently, not even heard of Karl Marx, still less The Communist Manifesto.  Nor has the term "dialectical materialism" passed his ears.  Of course he has not witnessed the "graveyards and transports" of Christians who died having "cast a light like a candle" around them in the Gulag, as Solzhentisyn put it.  (Having met such Christians, it was in the Gulag that Solzhenitsyn turned back to Christ.  I have met some, too.)  

Sherlock thinks, or wants to believe, that Joseph Stalin was some sort of anomaly, an aberration, who having gone to a seminary, somehow imbibed both revolutionary fervor and the doctrine of political quiessence in the face of tyranny at one and the same time, from Saint Paul.  (Whose teachings, in fact, he rejected in his first year.)  He wants to think that atheism must always be held innocent, because it is a mere absence of belief, which can never harm anyone ("I'm not a killer, I merely lack a belief in maintaining life?"), but that at the same time Stalin's real fault was he didn't read "atheists" like Jefferson and Einstein and Paine.  (Who were not atheists, actually.)  Sherlock has never heard, it seems, of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Castro, the Kims, Hofha, Guzman, Ho Chi Minh, Mao, or Xi Jinping, nor of the French Revolution, or the Marxists in Mexico.  

I refuted much of this nonsense in Jesus and the Religions of Man in 2000, already.  This is why being an apologist provides life-long job security: so many who say they care deeply about facts and evidence, never seem to learn them.  So the hydra presents new and ever-more silly faces to the Christian knight, and the job of chopping them off never ends.  

I was going to end by debunking Sherlock's false claims about Hitler (no, he was not a Christian, nor an atheist, though he was deeply influenced by atheist thinkers), but I've run out of both time and, I suspect, the reader's patience. 

A poster below notes that Richard Weikart is coming out with a book on Hitler's religion later this year.  Good news!  Weikart is an historian who teaches at California State, and has studied this issue for many years.  I expect his book will help settle the matter. 

But let me also note how weak Sherlock's main argument on Hitler's supposed faith is.  (Aside from the fact that he again excludes contrary evidence, no doubt because he has not read enough to know of it.)   

"X says Y, so Y" is an Argument from Authority.  Some arguments from authority are strong, many are weak.  Generally speaking, "X says he believes Y" is a fairly strong argument from authority.  If a man doesn't know what he really believes, then who does?   And we generally do people the courtesy of accepting their self-descriptions (even, absurdly, "I am a woman!" to a person whose plumbing is male).  

But when "X=Adolf Hitler," the argument "X says Y, so Y" loses its force, to put it mildly.  Hitler was known to OCCASIONALLY disassemble for political reasons.  And certainly, Hitler had strong motive to lie about being a Christian, running for office in a political climate in which the communists had pretty much cornered the market on atheists (many of whom, in the Germany of the time, were Jews).  That he WAS lying, is obvious, if you read Mein Kampf and the story of the Third Reich in general, as told for instance by Michael Burleigh in Sacred Causes.  It is also possible, in addition, that Hitler only had a vague notion of what Christianity was. 

Michael Sherlock is a talented ranter.  If only he would desert the ranks of New Atheists who are waging war upon History, and then begin to straighten out the kinks in his logic, he might learn a few things, and ultimately gain something worthwhile saying.   


sparrish said...

A very good post. I just have couple of comments.

Richard Weikart is publishing a book on Hitler's religion in November. I spoke with him a couple of years ago, and he told me that Hitler is best thought of as a pantheist. He thought the laws of nature were god. He rejected the concept of a personal God. His beliefs were really a form of naturalism with a religious feeling toward the universe. This concept of an immanent impersonal "god" was widespread in Germany. So, I think that in one respect, (where to be a god one has to be a personal being), Hitler can be fairly described as an atheist. Hitler was born a catholic and never officially left the church. So in one respect--church membership--he could be considered a Christian, though he was not a believing or practicing Christian. If one reads the Table Talk, or Goebbels' diaries, one can see he hated Christianity.

Be that as it may, it's a very good post. The historical ignorance in our society is awful. Have you seen Stark's new book "Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History?" Chapter 9 is especially relevant here. (I'm not a catholic.)

BTW, the email follow up comments for the post gives my wife's email, and I don't know how to change it.

David B Marshall said...

Thanks, Sparrish. Weikart's book will be welcome: Vox Dei did one a few years ago, which made some good points, but I'm sure Weikart's will be more authoritative.

I haven't seen Stark's book, either. He's a machine. Well over 80 now; I try not to pester him, because I know he is on a mission.

Mention of Hitler reminds me of a point I wanted to make, which I will add at the end.

sparrish said...


Here are some first hand quotation of what Hitler thought of God. To me, it is a sort of pantheism, or naturalism with a nature worshipping tinge. You might find these helpful.

In the Table Talk, Hitler is cited as saying “Fundamentally in everyone there is the feeling for this all-mighty, which we call God (that is to say, the dominion of natural laws throughout the whole universe).” 6.

Martin Bormann, Hitler's right hand man for the final few years of the Nazi regime, wrote, "When we National Socialists speak of a belief in God, we do not understand by God, like naive Christians and their spiritual opportunists, a human-type being, who sits around somewhere in space... The force of natural law, with which all these innumerable planets move in the universe, we call the Almighty or God." From Bormann's Circular on the Relationship of National Socialism and Christianity, in J. S. Conway, The Nazi Persecution of the Churches, 384.

Traudl Junge, Hitler's private secretary for the final few years wrote, "He [Hitler] was not a member of any church, and thought the Christian religions were outdated, hypocritical institutions that lured people into them. The laws of nature were his religion." Until the Final Hour edited by Melissa Muller, (New York: Arcade Publishing 2002) 108.

David B Marshall said...

Table Talk is questioned. I don't know what the state of the debate is currently.

sparrish said...

The Table Talk has been questioned, but all of the historians I have read (Kershaw and Evans for example)seem to take it for granted. At any rate, both Bormann and Junge say the same thing.

Here is a quote from Stark in "Bearing False Witness," p. 201, though he himself is quoting Alexander Yakolov, the who chaired a Russian committee after the fall of the Soviet Union investigating such matters.

"Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev was mutilated, castrated, and shot, and his corpse was left naked for the public to desecrate. Metropolitan Veniamin of St. Petersburg, in line to succeed the patriarch, was turned into a pillar of ice,; he was doused with cold water in the freezing cold. Bishop Germogen of Tobolsk...was strapped alive to the paddlewheel of a steamboat and mangled by the rotating blades. Archbishop Andronnnik of Perm...was buried alive. Archbishop Vasily was crucified and burned."

About 200,000 clergy were murdered, To quote again about what was done to priests, monks, and nuns, "[T]hey were crucified on the central doors of iconostases, thrown into cauldrons of boiling tar, scalped, strangled with priestly stoles, given Communion with melted lead, and drowned in holes in the ice." Over 20,000,000 Russians were murdered at least partly because of their religion.

A lot of atheists are really God haters, and express their hatred by torturing and killing religious people.

I apologize for taking so much space, but the willful ignorance, and sheer intellectual dishonesty of much of contemporary atheism needs to be addressed. I thank you for doing so.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Please look at this argument about Chairman Mao:

"Mao Zedong, an intellectually consistent atheist"

It helps to support your rebuttals. Thanks for writing a terrific article.

David B Marshall said...

Thanks. Mao was a nasty person, indeed. I hate to see how he continues to be worshiped blindly by naive young (and old) Chinese who don't know any better.

Patrick said...

As Randal Rauser would say, can you show that the violence done by these (we'll say for the sake of argument) atheists was done by atheism simpliciter?

Even though the violence was done by (we'll say for the sake of argument) atheists can you show that they didn't do it for power or greed, that they did it to promote atheism? After all, they had other things in common besides atheism. They were males, for example, and meat-eaters. How did you rule out other factors and came to the conclusion that it was done because of their atheism?

David B Marshall said...

"For the sake of the argument?" No. For the sake of historical fact, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Kims, etc, were all God-hating radical atheists who wanted to destroy "religion" and did their best to do so. If you can't admit that, you're playing games.

Both Aikman and I demonstrate the key role atheism played in the foundation of Marxism-Leninism. But they hardly denied it: they called their philosophy "dialectical materialism," not “dialectical barbecuing” or “dialectical male-bonding,” and wrote in their most famous manifesto about how communism “abolishes all religion,” not “all women” or “all vegetarians.” And indeed, women were probably less persecuted than men, and their propaganda teams were called “The League of Militant Atheists” not “The League of Militant Hamburger Flippers.” Not to mention those millions of murdered believers, and tens of thousands of pillaged churches, which seem to evoke sincerity, at least.

Do get real. A concern for reality is something both of our philosophies are supposed to share.

Patrick said...

From Wikipedia

Regarding the league:
most of the peasantry was unimpressed, and even the party apparatus considered the League to be meddling and inefficient

If you read the article they banned religion not for the sake of atheism but to consolidate their political power. They also banned other political parties for the same reason. They wanted the power to be in the party. They were eliminating competitors and promoting their own political power - not promoting atheism for its own sake.

Speaking of reality if you believe what you said about atheism then you should have no problem accepting this, too.

David B Marshall said...

I cite a doctoral dissertation written under the guidance of the head of the History Department at one of the world's great universities, and founder of The Slavic Review, and you cite Wikipedia in response?

Like I said. Get real.

As for the relation between "power" and "atheism," as if the two were supposed to be in conflict, or unrelated, read "Where did Marx Go Wrong" in Jesus and the Religions of Man. Even Orwell recognized the connection, as did Karl Marx.

Patrick said...

If atheism is so evil then, mass murders and all, how do you explain secular societies where there are no mass murders such as Sweden and the Netherlands? Much of Western Europe is secular yet no mass murders are going on. Even in Russia, a secular society according to you, there are no millions of people currently being killed. Shouldn't those things still be going on?

David B Marshall said...

Patrick: I didn't say "Atheism is evil." But the low murder rate and social disfunction rate in Scandinavia pre-dated the trend towards both secularism and Big Government. See my article on this site on Hans Hague, and the transcript of my debate with Phil Zuckerman.

To say "A was a contributing factor to X" does not entail either that X or something like X cannot happen without A, or that A always causes X or X Prime.

Unknown said...

Don't Blame Stalin's Atrocities on Atheism, Don't Blame Terrorists Atrocities on Islam, Don't blame Crusades on Christianity, Don't Blame The Israeli Government/Army on Judaism.... If Stalin was Christian would He of still done what He did....Who knows?

bigtutubi said...
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