On Atheistic Fanaticism

Sergey Khudiev | 20 June 2012

A Typical Attack

There are different ways to talk about religion and atheism. A deep, thorough discussion is possible, and I have had occasion to encounter serious, thoughtful atheists who are sincerely aspiring towards an honest and independent judgment. I am genuinely indebted to certain atheistic writers for helping me to acquire a most valuable habit: that of thought. However, a serious discussion about serious questions is often replaced by highfalutin propaganda designed for an audience that is ill-informed and, more regrettably, intellectually lazy. Both believers and atheists can become prone to such propaganda; it is harmful, first of all, in that it encourages and forms a habit of intellectual laziness and dishonesty.

In this article I would like to consider one of the clichés of atheist propaganda. A commonplace of this propaganda is the referral to crimes committed under the banner of religion: have a look, they say, at the madness to which faith in God leads. Therefore, this faith itself is foolish and harmful. This argument, which is repeated constantly, can be found in Richard Dawkins’ recent book, The God Delusion, which “has had an enormous sales success” according to the BBC website. The arguments that Dawkins puts forward are wholly typical; therefore I will use his book to reply to one of the most typical atheistic arguments. Dawkins writes:

“In January 2006 I presented a two-part television documentary on British television (Channel Four) called Root of All Evil? From the start, I didn’t like the title and fought it hard. Religion is not the root of all evil, for no one thing is the root of all anything. But I was delighted with the advertisement that Channel Four put in the national newspapers. It was a picture of the Manhattan skyline with the caption ‘Imagine a world without religion.’ What was the connection? The twin towers of the World Trade Center were conspicuously present.

“Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion. Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as ‘Christ-killers,’ no Northern Ireland ‘trouble,’ no ‘honour killings,’ no shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money (‘God wants you to give till it hurts’). Imagine no Taliban to blow up ancient statues, no public beheadings of blasphemers, no flogging of female skin for the crime of showing an inch of it.”

One can, generally speaking, agree that in a world without religion there would be no Talibans destroying Buddhist statues, for lack of Buddhism; and no one would have persecuted the Jews, because there would be no Jews. The same goes for other peoples, civilizations, and cultures created by religions. However, so far as I understand, the author is not so much speaking about this, but rather stating that religion, in his opinion, is the source of all this evil. The author does not know that “honour killings” or militant nationalism can manage perfectly well without any religion; he seems inclined to attribute all evil taking place in non-atheistic societies to religion. Dawkins writes in his book: “we have a pusillanimous reluctance to use religious names for warring factions. In Northern Island, Catholics and Protestants are euphemized to ‘Nationalists’ and ‘Loyalists’ respectively. The very word ‘religion’ is bowdlerized to ‘communities,’ as in ‘inner-community warfare.’”

I would note parenthetically that many participants in the Northern Ireland conflict (as is the case in many other conflicts) are just as much atheists as Dawkins; for them, “Catholic” and “Protestant” signifies their national self-identification. We can, however, equally well turn the accusation of having a “pusillanimous reluctance” to call things by their names against Dawkins himself.

In fact, we know what we are talking about when it comes to fanaticism, intolerance, and persecution for convictions. Our country has suffered a great deal from fanaticism and intolerance – more so, I think, than any other country in the world, with the exception of Cambodia. The horror of these events should never be forgotten. We should preserve the memory of them as unyieldingly as the Jews have preserved the memory of the horrors of the Holocaust – because the words “he who forgets the lessons of history is doomed to repeat them” are not only sobering, but actually true. We should remember the victims of fanaticism who were shot in the back of the head, who were chopped to pieces, who were starved to death, or who were killed in many other ways; we should remember the works of culture and art destroyed by fanatics; we should remember that these fanatics created one of the most horrible tyrannies in history. Moreover, we should remember that this fanaticism was atheistic.

It was not churchmen who shot atheists at Butovo; it was exactly the other way around. The historical reality is that atheistic fanatics have killed far more people than Islamic extremists and the Inquisition combined. By this I do not mean to say that all atheists are completely bloodthirsty fanatics – that is not the case – but only to draw attention to the fact that one of the most devastating forms of fanaticism, Bolshevism, was in fact atheistic. Therefore, to think that hatred, fanaticism, and persecution to be the products of religion – and, moreover, to recommend atheism as a remedy for all these calamities – would mean declaring the entire history of twentieth-century Russia (and not just Russia) to be non-existent. Dawkins writes: “What matters is not whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists, but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. There is not the smallest evidence that it does.”

Bolsheviks firing on a procession in Astrakhan

Both in our country, and in others, people who loudly proclaimed their atheistic convictions persecuted believers with the specific purpose of imposing atheism and eradicating religion. When people burned down churches and killed priests and laity ­– here, in Mexico, and in many other places – they did so precisely under the banner of atheism. But for Dawkins (and those with him) “there is not the slightest evidence” that atheism influences people to do bad things. What can one say to this? Dawkins reproaches Protestant fundamentalists for not being convinced of the reality of evolution by any evidence whatsoever while he, as an honest scholar, is always ready to reconsider his views. But the theory of evolution is still a theory describing facts, while atheistic persecution is a fact in itself. The multitude of Russian, Spanish, Mexican, Chinese (and many other) new martyrs – whose names and circumstances of death are often well known – who suffered precisely from atheists and precisely for faith do not exist for Dawkins. I do not think that Dawkins is consciously lying. It would be wrong to imagine him slyly winking while muttering to himself: “Great! I’ve deceived these foolish readers of mine!” I think he believes himself in exactly the same way that, for instance, the revisionist David Irving is sincere in his denial of the Holocaust. Someone can simply completely ignore anything that does not fit into his picture of the world, regardless of whether he is a believer or an atheist. Atheism is by no means a cure for all this.

The “argument from historical atrocities” sounded fairly impressive from the mouths of, say, the figures of the Enlightenment. They (and their audience) had no point of comparison. But soon Europe saw no fewer spectacular crimes committed under the banner of Enlightenment and Reason. General Turreau and his colonnes infernales [“infernal columns”] engaged in Franco-French genocide in Vendee. Revolutionary soldiers began to shoot nuns for refusing to renounce their vows. Since then, the experience of French, Spanish, Mexican, and especially Russian atheism has demonstrated that fanatical persecution, massacre, tyranny, and witch hunts have been perpetrated under anti-religious banners on a much larger scale than under religious banners.

There is an obvious method for establishing whether factor X is responsible for phenomenon Y: does this phenomenon continue following the removal of the factor? If we get rid of killer doctors, but patients continue to get worse, then we have probably wrongly accused the doctors; if a suspect is arrested and executed, but the serial killings continue, that means that we had the wrong man; if, finally, we get rid of religion and believers, but the disasters and atrocities previously ascribed to religion not only do not end, but grow even larger in scale, then that means religion was not the problem. If atrocities in situations in which it is absolutely impossible to blame religion have only grown worse, this means that religion was by no means the cause of the atrocities. Recognition of this does not mean rejecting atheism as such; it means a rejection of a phobia along the lines of “all things bad, all things sinister, come from the crafty minister.” [1] This also means a more sober – that is, a more pessimistic – view of human nature.

Some Objections

In discussions on the Russian Internet, people often say that Communism is a religious surrogate and that Communists cannot be considered atheists in the strict sense of the word: Holy Scripture was replaced by the works of the Founders of Communism, the Martyrs and Saints by the fallen fighters for the People’s Happiness, and religious ritual by Communist ritual. Here it is important to avoid a confusion of terms. Richard Dawkins himself is such an ardent and zealous missionary of atheism that some of his fellow atheists ask him: “Doesn’t your hostility mark you out as a fundamentalist atheist, just as fundamentalist in your own way as the wingnuts of the Bible Belt in theirs?”

Dawkins displays certain features that we are accustomed to see in religious people (and, I would add parenthetically, not in the best of them) – so does he thereby cease being an atheist? Can we declare that, say, a patriot who honors his flag or a politician deeply committed to his party is a believer? Are Spartak fans believers in a Spartak cult? Theoretically, we can declare anyone a believer, but then we lose the very meaning of the words “religion” and “atheism.”

Therefore, let us use these words in their dictionary meaning. In the dictionary meaning of the word, Communists were atheists, adherents of a secular ideology that included militant atheism as a mandatory component; according to that same dictionary meaning, they were by no means religious. As T. P. Samsonov, head of the secret unit of the Cheka, wrote to F. E. Dzerzhinsky, director of the Cheka, on December 4, 1920:

“Comrade Latsis is profoundly correct when he says that Communism and Religion are mutually exclusive; he is also profoundly correct in saying that religion can be destroyed by no other apparatus than by the Cheka.”

If we use the words “religion” and “atheism” arbitrarily, then we can of course assert anything we want: but such affirmations would be meaningless, as argued above.

Does one need to hold on to a worthless argument?

I would like to be understood correctly. I am not going to say something along the lines of “atheists killed millions of people, so let them now keep mum.” I do no think that any one group of people – including atheists– can be blamed for the crimes of others. The majority of my atheistic opponents has never harmed anyone and does not approve of doing harm. Moreover, I do not question the right of atheists to challenge my faith; I think that arguing about faith is an essential part of the search for faith. But right now I am not talking about faith, but about the most basic intellectual honesty.

I acknowledge that depraved people can use religion for depraved ends; and, moreover, that even sincere believers can sin and err horribly. I do not consider this as evidence against the Gospel: it is in the Gospel itself that the Savior says: whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service (John 16:2); and that He in fact never knew some of those who prophesized in His name (cf. Matthew 7:23)? Scripture does not promise the Church either the purity or personal sinlessness of its members, but rather prepares us for the contrary.

Although a good deal can be attributed to “malicious libel” and propagandistic exaggerations, the history of the Church has witnessed many sins; God is not working with clay figures, but with sinful people living in a sinful society. Grave atrocities and injustices have indeed been committed under the banner of Christianity and I have no intention to justify them.

It seems to me that it would be natural for atheists also to admit that, yes, mass atrocities have been committed under the banner of atheism; that there have been bigots of the darkest kind among atheists; and that atheism by no means insures its adherents against hatred, fanaticism, or blind trust in leaders. Some atheists do admit this. Valery Kuvakin, for example, writes that any idea – including the ideas of atheism and secular humanism – can be distorted in the most anti-human manner. Acknowledgment of the fact that more blood has been shed under the banner of atheistic ideology than under that of religion does not imply acceptance of the reality of God’s existence. One can remain an atheist – in the sense of not recognizing a supernatural reality – and still acknowledge these crimes. However, for a certain type of atheist, such an acknowledgment is unacceptable – and this, I think, is the line between atheism as a worldview and atheism as a phobia, between argumentation and propaganda, and between the desire for understanding and the desire for simple (and false) answers.

Two sides of atheism

In such a multifaceted phenomenon as atheism, one can distinguish two sides: I would call them atheism-as-worldview and atheism-as-phobia. Someone might suppose that there is no God and that anyone who believes that there is, and who worships Him, is mistaken. Such a conviction, generally speaking, does not necessarily imply hostility to faith and to believers. This kind of atheist might show tolerance (“well, let them do as they wish”) or even benevolence (“it benefits society”) towards faith and believers. Such atheism could still be called “non-militant.” I would not claim that lack of belief in God induces people to persecute their neighbors. I simply want to point out that atheism does not in the least insure one against falling into fanaticism, hypocrisy, and completely ignoring unpleasant facts – vices that atheistic propaganda has traditionally described as specifically religious.

Atheism-as-phobia repeats the common features of phobias in general, whether national or confessional, and the similarity of this kind of atheism with anti-Semitism, for example, has been frequently remarked upon. A certain group of people is declared to be the source of all misfortune and calamity and a great threat to society; the history of this group is described as criminal; and the more repellant members of this group (“the Jewish commissar,” “the Islamic terrorist,” “the greedy televangelist,” “the depraved monk”) are put forward as typical representatives characteristic of the group as a whole.

I have seen an intelligent, gentle preacher of atheism who was himself horrified by seeing how the people listening to him turned his views into a primitive hatred towards faith and believers. He did not have this in mind at all. But – and it seems that he lost sight of this – there is a demand for phobias; people will take material from wherever they can, including from him. There is always a definite demand for an explanation of where all misfortune and calamity comes from, of who drank all the water from the faucet. [2] In the dark recesses of the human psyche – alas! – there is something that responds eagerly to the temptation of fitting reality into a simple scheme in which certain people – Jews, Muslims, Americans, Russians, churchmen, cyclists – are declared to be the root of world evil. A refined philosophical discussion about the strength of the proofs for God’s existence will hardly attract many supporters; but Sturm und Drang, bold generalizations, broad strokes – and, most importantly, the proffering of an enemy that can be despised, feared, and hated – will. This is, after all, a respectable and socially approved phobia.

That the atheistic regimes of the twentieth century in fact demonstrated a fanatical passion for persecution, witch-hunts, and the cruel suppression of dissent – of everything that atheistic propaganda has accused religion – is precisely what this phobia renders impossible to admit. This alone does not disprove the thesis that “there is no God.” But it does wholly disprove the thesis that “all things bad, all things sinister, come from the crafty minister.” But there are those who cannot put aside this phobia.

This kind of dishonesty is all the more regrettable given that nothing critical for affirming one’s own atheistic position is found therein. Admitting the reality of atheistic fanaticism does not necessitate rejecting atheism; but it does necessitate giving up the primitive picture that “all things bad, all things sinister, come from the crafty minister.” Once these crafty ministers had been gotten rid of – and even in the process of getting rid of them – misfortune and trouble only multiplied.

Translator’s note:

[1] Our rendering of a popular rhyming adage.

[2] A reference to an anti-Semitic rhyme.

Translated from the Russian 

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