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The Fallacy of the “20th Century Atheist Regimes”

Straw Man: 20th Century Atheist regimes are responsible for the worst massacres in history.

This argument has become a thought-terminating cliché which serves both as a cautionary tale of what happens when we turn away from God, and also as an attempt to equal the ledger in discussions relating to religious violence.

Its key premise erroneously presupposes we accept that atheism was pivotal in causing violence in the fascist and communist regimes of the 20th century. Accordingly, “atheistic regimes” are supposedly an example of the dangers of “atheism” in practice. Where we might have previously said, Communist Regimes, or Totalitarian Regimes, for the purposes of argument we rebrand them Atheistic Regimes, employing a rather transparent form of Humpty-Dumptyism in order to pin the blame on atheism. The argument is used as a return argument, a tu quoque fallacy, to divert attention from religious violence.

Nazi Germany

First, as an absolute knockdown Nazi Germany was not even an atheist state. Germany was a 95% Christian country when it went to war in 1939. As Christopher Hitchens was fond of pointing out, the first Treaty signed by the Nazi regime was with the Catholic Church exchanging political influence for control of German education. Hitler ascribed his victories to divine Providence, and encouraged his own personal deification. Soldiers had “Gott mit uns” (“God with us”) inscribed on their belt buckles, and party members took the following oath under God: “I swear in the name of almighty God, my loyalty to the Fuhrer.” Hitler was explicit: Nazi Germany was, and would always be, a Christian nation.

Historians, such as biographer John Toland, cite Hitler’s Catholic background as having an influence on his fervent anti-Semitism. Following meetings with Hitler, General Gerhard Engel and Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber wrote that Hitler was a believer in God. The references to Hitler’s contempt for Christianity in the memoirs of some of his confidantes seem to be the root of the association of Nazism with nonbelief. However, these references are at odds with his public announcements and the memories of some of his other contemporaries. Although his personal religious views varied throughout his life, Nazi public policy contained a consistent commitment to Christianity. The Party developed Positive Christianity which involved a hard line reinterpretation of Scripture that was particularly anti-Semitic with a trajectory towards deifying the Fuhrer himself who was said by Hanns Kerrl, Reichsminister of Church Affairs, to be the “herald of a new revelation.”

Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord. (Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, Ralph Manheim, ed., New York, 1998, p. 65)

Hitler did not act alone. Using propaganda he fanned the flames of popular Christian anti-Semitism, and promoted a policy of racial purity and Arian superiority. As a scapegoat for the humiliation Germany suffered at Versailles, Jews were reviled as subhuman, commonly held to be treacherous creatures, undeserving of pity–beliefs which made the Final Solution possible.

The views of Hitler on Jews are hardly unique or un-Christian, but rather are a product of the centuries of Christianity which preceded him. Consider the 1543 anti-Jewish Pamphlet by Martin Luther “On the Jews and Their Lies” wherein he referred to Jews as “poisonous bitter worms,” “miserable and accursed people,” “brood of vipers” [see Matt. 3:7], “truly stupid fools,” “nothing but thieves and robbers,” “great vermin of human ordinances,” and ” lazy rogues.” In dealing with Jews, Martin Luther recommended:

First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom …

Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.

Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.

Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb.

Fifth, I advise that safe conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews.”

Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping.

Seventh … letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow …

[“The Jews and Their Lies”]

The pamphlet “Jews and Their Lies” was displayed at Nazi Nuremberg rallies, and the scholarly view is that it had a major influence on German attitudes to Jews from the Reformation to the Holocaust (see: Wallmann, Johannes. “The Reception of Luther’s Writings on the Jews from the Reformation to the End of the 19th Century,” Lutheran Quarterly, n.s. 1, Spring 1987).

So the arrow flung at atheism for Nazi atrocities might, at least in part, be redirected towards historical Christian anti-Semitism, not to mention the other drivers of Nazism: Nationalism, humiliation at Versailles, racial purity, Utopian ideals, Fascism, and the cult of personality of Hitler himself. Nazi Germany was not an atheist regime or an atheist country, and it was not motivated by atheism.

Communist States

But what of countries that have embraced atheism as a national creed: The Soviet Union under Stalin, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia? The atrocities of these regimes were not primarily motivated by atheism but by the crushing of dissent in fulfilling the Utopian creed of which atheism was but a tenet. To blame atheism is a Fallacy of Division: when one infers that something true for the whole must also be true of all or some of its parts. Atheism, as a part of Stalin’s or Pol Pot’s regimes, cannot necessarily be judged as equivalent to the whole regime, and the specific causes for the violence require further investigation.

Reflecting on the primary goals of Communism as described by Marx and Engels in redistribution of wealth and changes to the social, political and economic order, atheism was but a secondary consideration. The Soviet State under Stalin was epitomized by the paranoia and power-crazed nature of its leader resulting in purges of all potential opposition. The perceived necessity for the government to control its subjects by force seems to have provided the leaders with the tools to prolong their own grasp on power; men who would be tyrants tended to obtain and keep power. One might make the case that Communism is a failed political system which appears to result in totalitarianism, murderous despots, and failed economic reforms. 20th Century Communism, like Nazism, is based on a Utopian vision for society where human rights are sacrificed for the common good, where the end justifies the means, and where totalitarianism usurps the will of the individual.

Abandonment of faith in God in favor of worship at the altar of science or reason is also often invoked as part of the “atheistic regimes” fallacy. Since atheism does not necessarily entail “blind faith” in science–or anything else–this point is a straw man, but even so the argument is ahistorical. In China the Great leap forward was a disastrous economic experiment that caused millions of deaths through famine, which resulted primarily from inept planning. The agrarian reforms of the Soviet Union also featured bad science and a reliance on Communist dogma with the same results–millions of deaths. Nazi Germany featured pseudoscience-driven policies such as eugenics and racism aimed at purification. Pol Pot relocated urban dwellers to the country to tend farms and work in forced-labor projects resulting in widespread malnutrition and death. Science was subordinate to socialist and communist dogma, with dire consequences. Scientists did just fine in totalitarian states unless they challenged authority–in which case they were killed, forced into exile or put in prison camps.

Pol Pot was not an atheist. A Thervada Buddhist, he believed in irrationalities such as karma, and that heaven was guiding him in his efforts to transform his country into a Communist utopia. Cambodia was Buddhist, and the Khmer Rouge adopted and mirrored elements of Buddhist thought such a dhamma, and the renunciation of material goods and sentimentality.

The religious or nonreligious beliefs of these despots and their regimes are not necessarily influential in the success or failure of their governments. Hitler was a Christian influenced by Martin Luther, Stalin was an altar boy educated in a seminary, and Pol Pot was educated at a Catholic School for 10 years and then at a Buddhist one. If correlation is all that matters we could easily draw the conclusion that religion is crucial to causing the atrocities of these regimes. Alas, the causes are to be found beyond considerations of belief or nonbelief.

Correlation does not prove causation

A correlation between atheism and the despotic communist regimes of the 20th century does not imply causation. Proponents, nevertheless, seem to make the connection between atheism and those despotic regimes due to their own preexisting biases, reasoning that without Christianity (or another faith) as a controlling force these regimes cut the cord to morality. There is no evidence, however, to support the view that the irreligious are less moral than the religious. The rich history of religious violence, continued in the present day by ISIS, Boko Haram, Christian militias in central Africa, and many other religious groups demonstrates how myopic this view is. Atheists are drastically underrepresented in U.S. prisons at 0.07%, compared to 1.6% of the general population.


One observes that attitudes to violence have changed dramatically in the last century. In previous centuries capital punishment was common. Divinely ordained monarchs were not squeamish when it came to dealing with their enemies. The revered Queen Elizabeth I had seventy-one of her subjects hanged, drawn and quartered, many on the basis of their religious affiliation. The guilty were dragged by horse on a wooden frame to a public place where they were hanged by the neck until almost dead, then placed on a table, disemboweled, their sex organs were removed and burned, after which they were finally decapitated. The corpse was then hacked into four pieces, which were placed on display in different parts of the city or country. The crime of treason, frequently identified by religious affiliation, was often punished in this gruesome manner; the Christian doctrines of peace and mercy were apparently no obstacle. The torture chambers in the Inquisitions, featuring some of the most sadistic and morally repellent punishments devised by man: the Rack, the Heretics Fork, the Pear, the Strappado, the Judas Cradle, the Breast ripper, the Garrotte, Breaking on the Wheel, and of course, burning at the stake. These were not undertaken in the grip of passion, or with a temporary loss of sanity, they were premeditated acts, reasoned and thought out, based on the practical application of Scripture. The parallel with totalitarianism is self-evident: the ideology demands compulsory adherence on pain of torture and death. If the absence of faith in God severs the moral urge in humans it is curious that we seem to have become progressively more adverse to extreme violence over time, concurrent with an increase in secularism, humanitarian attitudes, and democratic governments.

20th Century violence not the worst

Steven Pinker, in his magnificent The Better Angels of our Nature, provides ample data that violence is declining historically. We are becoming more peaceable when we measure violence in proportion to the world population (which is surely a more accurate measure than by total numbers of deaths given the dramatic increase in the global population). When understood in proportion to the total global population, the 20th century does not represent a high point of violence in history, and in fact its second half has been notable for a lasting peace. The Crusades, unambiguously religiously motivated, resulted in 1 million deaths out of a total world population of 400 million, proportionally higher than the Holocaust. The carnage resulting from the religious Thirty Years War was double that of World War I, and about the same as World War II, when compared as a percentage of world population. This data takes some steam out of the belief that the last century featured extraordinary violence requiring a special explanation.

Perspective: Utopian political systems and Totalitarianism

The large death tolls of the 20th Century are better understood in comparing the rise of Utopian political systems rather than their religious affiliations. As countries have shifted away from political systems such as Nazism and Communism, abandoned totalitarianism as they have embraced universal human rights and became secular liberal democracies, we have had a period of comparative peace. There are also a myriad of other specific reasons explaining the violence of the 20th Century. It is simplistic to characterize societies as if they are driven by a single idea, even those led by genocidal despots feature a range of ideas and interests represented in an ideology. Fascism coexisted with Catholicism in various countries, and Cold War allegiances were driven by the political system rather than the religious affiliation. Weapons became more destructive, capable of killing en masse early in the 20th century allowing for higher death tolls than before. Ethnic cleansing, military juntas, political instability, sectarian violence and other reasons have all contributed.

Atheism does not demand State Atheism

“State Atheism,” the official promotion of atheism as an enforced belief by government (employed by Communist regimes), must be distinguished from mere “atheism.” A mere belief in atheism does not insist on the conversion of all others. Compulsion by force is an aspect of totalitarianism, not atheism, and without this compulsion demanded on behalf of all the doctrines of Communism there would have been no reason for the persecution of dissenters. There are no new atheists I am aware of who argue for atheism to be state sponsored and enforced on pain of loss of liberty, torture and death. This highlights a crucial distinction between religious and nonreligious ideologies. Christianity suggests an evangelical requirement on believers, and if it were actually true that an eternity in Hell awaits nonbelievers then one would indeed be doing good by forcing others to conform to its doctrines. Fervent believers in Islam are also determined to see to it that their religion is practiced by all. Harsh punishments–including the death penalty–still exist in many parts of the world for apostasy and atheism.

State Atheism represents a totalitarian ideology abhorrent to most modern atheists, humanists and secularists, and is an indictment on the collaboration between Utopian ideologies and totalitarian political systems, not atheism itself. Atheism necessitates only either a lack of belief or disbelief in god(s); it is not necessary to adhere to an ideology seeking to enforce compulsory belief on all. Atheism is conflated with State atheism, symptomatic of the apologetic habit of measuring aspects of atheism in contradistinction to aspects of religion, as if they are diametrically opposed to one another with equivalent but opposite qualities. Atheism is broadened into a tapestry of irreligious ideologies often including such things as scientism, social Darwinism, eugenics, Communism and totalitarianism. The new atheists are not arguing for State atheism any more than they are promoting theocratic rule. Pluralism is an ideal common to atheists, one that stands in stark contrast to totalitarianism.

Historical Perspective

Historians refer to these brutal regimes as Communist States, not Atheistic states (I refer to Steven Rosefielde, Klas-Goren Karlsson, Stephen Hicks, Robert Conquest, Anne Applebaum, Eric D. Wietz, Benjamin Valentino, Jacques Semelin, Jon M. Thomson, and Helen Rappaport). These scholars argue variously that a range of reasons, namely Communist Ideology, Crisis Conditions, Personal Responsibility of the leaders, and Totalitarianism, led to mass violence. Notably, political movements requiring revolution cannot gain power without violent uprisings, and a militaristic view of maintaining power seems to endure.

Key Points

The Fallacy of the “atheistic regimes” argument encounters the following decisive objections:

  1. Nazism was not atheistic
  2. It is a Fallacy of Division to equate atheism with larger political systems which might include it as a tenet
  3. Atheism was not the prime motivator of the violence undertaken the fascist and communist totalitarian regimes of the 20th century
  4. No evidence suggests decline in religious belief, or atheism, leads to an increase in violence, although plenty of evidence suggests the opposite
  5. The 20th century was not the most violent in history
  6. The cause of violence and the passage to nonviolence is better understood in terms of the rise and fall of Utopian totalitarian states
  7. Atheists do not support or promote State Atheism
  8. Historians do not support the “atheistic state” fallacy

Facing these objections the straw man falls. Atheism does not suffer any guilt by association with tyrannical despots; their delusions of grandeur, false ideologies and lust for power were far more urgent motivators than the influence of a lack of belief in God. It might be comforting for the apologists of religion to rationalize the violence done in its name by invoking the fallacy of atheist regimes, but they are forced to ignore history to do so. The failure to make elementary distinctions, an incurious and cherry-picked view of history, is symptomatic of starting with a conclusion and then trying to furnish it with evidence.

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